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greebs's review of Suite Francaise

A brilliant, if sad tale of war and horror

5out of 5

by greebs on July 24, 2007

I just finished reading Suite Francaise, a book that took me over a month to finish, mostly because it took a very long time for me to actually get into it. I persevered, because what I?d read was good if not captivating ? and because the book received the best overall reviews of any book in 2006. That?s pretty compelling, and I?m glad I did bear down, as Suite Francaise was absolutely a very enjoyable book.

I?m not sure it?s the most brilliant story I?ve read per se, but what makes the book so unique and tragic is that it?s essentially a first draft. Irene Nemirovsky, a Jewish Russian émigré living in France, wrote this during WWII, about the German occupation of France that was going on at the same time she wrote her draft. It remained a draft because Nemirovsky was taken to Auschwitz, where she died, her husband befalling the same fate just a short while later

The book is actually two short books of a planned total of five, the latter three which never got drafted. The first, Storm in June, follows several Parisian families and characters, of varying class and personalities, as they scramble to avoid the invading German soldiers. It?s interesting, and occasionally surprisingly funny amidst the pending -- but somehow distant -- horror. Nemirovsky?s writing is crisp and the somewhat dated tone of the language (which, of course, is also translated here by Sandra Smith) still works just fine. Storm in June does feel like it would really have benefited from some editing, and perhaps I?d have not finished seven or eight back issues of the New Yorker while finishing the rather sparse 190 pages of the story. (Or maybe it?s just me.)

The second book, Dolce, is more powerful, as the Germans have not only arrived but have occupied the area, moving into locals homes, eating their food and living off their land. Here, the characters are better developed and the frustration, shame and despair of being an occupied country feels palpable. The stories are more personal, and we begin to see connections between these characters and some of those from Storm in June, notably the Michauds, a middle-class family that were perhaps the sole truly likeable characters in the first book. We focus on several locals in a single village that has been occupied by the Germans. Some are resolute in their hatred of all things German; others are scorned for being too welcome, too accepting of the occupation.

It is, however, only after reading Nemirovsky?s notes on her plans for the rest of the novel, and most tragically, her and her husband Michel Epstein?s correspondence that begin tragically fall off as each of them are arrested, en route to Auschwitz where both perished.

And it?s the fact that she wrote these stories almost literally as they were happening that is perhaps the most impressive thing about Suite Francaise. She realized and began to develop characters experiencing things she was only beginning to see transpire; in a sense, she correctly saw the outcomes of many things yet to occur in real life. Curiously missing from most of this, are any Jewish characters who befell the things Nemirovsky did herself ? though her notes suggest that this topic (or something like it) would be covered, her letters show that she was sure her time was short, so it?s not like she didn?t understand that risk or horror. It?s an odd omission in light of things.

On their own, the two books are enjoyable and often quite good, but it?s the entire experience of what?s in Suite Francaise that makes it fully worth it. Her notes show a vision that would make both a great story but stay within the context of the war that was still unfolding. The sheer effort of what she was trying to do ? and succeeding in doing so ? is actually somewhat heroic, especially given her personal risk. And her letters, and her husband?s desperate attempts to find her, bring the real-life horror into what had remained fiction until then. The grim capstone here makes everything that more powerful.

As a novel, it does read like a phenomenal first draft, but one that still is not as polished as it should be. And the overall book experience certainly does get points from me because of the circumstances in which it was written and saved. (It was only discovered recently, written in tiny script in an notebook that her daughters had kept without realizing what they had.)
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Reviewed by greebs

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