It’s been quite a while, but this last book was a bit of a doozy. It took me forever to finish and honestly, although I enjoyed the story overall, I don’t know if it was worth all of that valuable reading time. Well, what’s done is done. Let’s go on with the review.
I thought I would jump right back into where I left off with our favorite, chic French novelist, Françoise Sagan. The last book I read / reviewed was Salad Days / Le Chien Couchant, which was written in 1980. I literally jumped right back into that time period and picked up a book that was published only a year later, 1981, The Painted Lady (La Femme Fardée).
This is Sagan’s longest book and it is not an easy one to pounce on. What happened to Sagan as she got older? Look, I’m not the biggest fan of Bonjour Tristesse, it was a fun, airy, short novel written by a young writer. But La Chamade was lovely and so were the novels that followed that gem, but then I got to the 70’s and 80’s and what on Earth happened? Where did the spark go? Apparently a bunch of critics in France said that this novel was her triumphant comeback and I can see glimpses of it, but honestly, it’s just so overwritten! It’s so long! Half of the novel is very unnecessary and so are her overflowing descriptions of feelings, the ocean, rooms, etc.
Sigh, anyway, the novel begins in Cannes where passengers are about to board the Narcissus (a-HAH) for a 10-day cruise in the Mediterranean with fabulous musical accompaniment: the diva La Doriacci and the pianist Hans-Helmut Kreuze. Now, a cruise has many passengers but we only focus on the first class passengers, of which there are 10, and the strict Captain Elledocq and his second hand, the ever charming, Charley Bollinger. Each passenger comes with their own set of preconceptions about each other and as tacky as it sounds, all the passengers are wearing a painted face, much like the title. There is literally a painted lady, by the name of Clarisse Lethuillier with “a face already grotesquely thick and gleaming with make-up, for this diffident upper-class lady painted herself like a whore and, according to gossip columns, drank like a fish, drugged herself like a Chinaman and was, in short, systematically destroying herself and her marriage.” What a rough, anti-Asian sentiment!
Look, all of the characters are described in a pretty grotesque way, because everyone has their preconceptions and lord knows the the upper class loves to gossip about each other in the worst way possible, but the novel does that very nice thing where you actually get to learn about each character and see the rather positive things about each one. Except for two self-centered, gorgeous people, Olga Lamouroux and the horrible, no good Eric Lethuillier. There is something rather appealing about characters that are just bad, right? It makes everything so much easier…
So, we have Clarisse Lethuillier, the painted lady, but the quote above is not entirely true! Yes, Clarisse does wear far too much makeup and yes, she drinks like a fish, but she is not ruining her marriage! Her husband, the very handsome Eric Lethuillier, is making a job out of doing that! Clarisse is the heiress to Dureau Steelworks, a very old, very rich family and Eric is the owner of a leftist newspaper called Forum. A would-be communist marrying a socialite? Nothing good can come of this…so, there we have the beautiful, but broken Clarisse Lethuillier and her dominating and communist husband, Eric Lethuillier, who takes pleasure out of destroying his poor wife’s confidence.
Following the unhappily married couple is the very chic and glamorous Edma Bautet-Lebreche and her husband, “The Sugar Baron” Armand Bautet-Lebreche, who owns the largest fortune in France, even Europe. Edma loves gossip and love affairs (even though she has been 50 for a century they say) and Armand is forgettable unless you did business with him. Next is Simon Bejard, an American producer fresh off winning Cannes Film Festival with the young, 20-something French actress Olga Lamouroux, who only wants to ensure her part in Simon’s next film…even if that means sleeping with him every night. Then the two odd-layers of this upper class cake are Julien Peyrat, a professional cheat who dabbles in poker and selling fake art, and the 20-something angelic gigolo, Andreas Fayard.
All of these characters come together to create a literary soap opera spanning over 400 pages. Clarisse and Julien fall in love. Eric and Olga sleep together, regrettably. Simon pines for Olga but after 400 pages realizes she’s a selfish brat and starts a romance with the sophisticated Edma. Armand falls asleep everywhere and then randomly has a very strange interaction with the singing diva, la Doriacci, who is hilarious and somehow ends up in his bathroom while he’s taking a bath (An aside, la Doriacci is such a fascinating character! She’s a 60+ opera singer who has trysts with young men and parades around the cruise with large jewelry and bold personality). The gigolo, Andreas, abandons his plans to find a rich woman, and falls madly in love with la Doriacci, only for him to end up heartbroken and meeting his demise by falling off the ship right at the end of the cruise. Charley and Elledocq watch and critique, while trying to maintain the peace on the ship. The pianist, Hans-Helmut Kreuze, is also pining for la Doriacci, but is so irrelevant to the overall plot that we can just skip him.
So it all sounds rather enticing, right? If you like a good soap opera and I suppose if it was 200 pages shorter, it would have been such a fun read, but it just drones on and on. And within the droning on are certain elements of the plot that would be missed, so it’s not like you can totally skim the drawn out, long pages. You actually have to read each long, over worded paragraph in order to follow all of the story.
I will say that Eric is the absolute worse. I felt so bad for Clarisse the more I read about this insufferable character. There’s no depth, only hate. This quote sums him up perfectly, “But in any event, Eric Lethuillier’s leftish leanings had bit by bit been corrupted: he no longer wanted poor people to have cars, he merely wanted rich people not to have them any more. Accordingly, the actual conditions of the poor were of little importance for him. This is what Julien had smelled out, what had begun to rise off the pages of the Forum, what had gradually rendered it suspect.” I will say, there’s something about a book that just makes you hate a character without second thought. You definitely do feel worried about the poor Clarisse, but she finds herself and her strength again through the help of Julien.
“But ten minutes, five minutes, even three minutes with Julien, the man who made her like herself again – three minutes with Julien were well worth a scene. She had a thousand things to tell him, things that she had just rediscovered. And he, for his part, had a thousand answers and a thousand questions, all of which did not prevent them from sitting mute and motionless on their leather stools before they began to speak, both at once, and then stop, with identical excuses, as in the worst American comedies.”
I will say that Sagan continues with her theme of bashing the young women and glorifying the older women like she did in Salad Days. Olga, who is 20-something, is deemed no good and selfish and even her beauty is in doubt at the end, but Edma and la Doriacci are constantly described as slim, beautiful and even sexy. In Sagan’s world, being young is nothing and age is everything.
I will say that unlike her other novels, this novel is wrapped up very nicely. Good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to bad people. Clarisse and Julien have their happy ending. Simon and Edma tease us with a budding romantic relationship. La Doriacci lets the readers know that she’ll be heading to New York City and will be greeted by another young lover who’s anxiously awaiting her. The guests, aside from Charley and Elledocq, are even spared the gruesome image of Andreas death, instead they naively toast to his bright future.
So, would I recommend this book? Honestly, I did enjoy it once I finished it, but while reading the book…I wished I wasn’t, so take what you will from that experience. All I know is that I definitely do not want to go on a cruise anytime soon.
**Ok, after being asked by several people, I’m going to include Amazon Affiliate links to the reviews that I am writing. I am not being paid for any reviews nor are these links influencing my opinions. It’s just an easy way to share the exact same edition / translation of the book that I just read. Also, if you purchase the book, that’s a little thank you from you to me! Here is the link for this particular book (it’s the same exact edition and translation that I read!): The Painted Lady