Breaking Away and Someone I Loved are both beautifully produced novellas which have recently been published by Gallic books. Both have been translated wonderfully from their original French – Breaking Away by Alison Anderson and Someone I Loved by Catherine Evans.
Breaking Away was first published under the title French Leave. This novella – for both books are of novella length, despite the way in which they say ‘a novel’ on their respective covers – tells the story of four siblings, the Loriats – Garance, Lola, Vincent and ‘too nice’ Simon. The entirety of the story is fraught with the tensions of different relationships – the conspiratorial nature of Garance and Lola’s sisterhood, their adoration of Simon, and Garance’s dislike of her sister-in-law Carine taking centre stage. In Breaking Away, the Loriats are travelling to a wedding in the countryside, Garance and Lola being driven there by Simon and Carine, and Vincent making his own uncertain way.
The differences of the siblings are set out rather succinctly by Garance, our narrator: ‘Then there’s the obvious fact that all of it – our apparent indifference, our discretion and our weakness, too – is our parents’ fault… So here we are. Sublime losers. We just sit there in silence while the loudmouths get their way, and any brilliant response we might have come up with is nipped in the bud, and all we’re left with is a vague desire to be sick.’
The novella is told in a series of small vignettes, the majority of which lead into one another seamlessly. Gavalda’s writing style throughout is most interesting, and startlingly contemporary at times. She has used a good balance of long and short sentences, and knows by instinct which to employ at any given time, in order to give her story power, or to take it away. The style which Gavalda has employed is rather witty, and I admired how headstrong Garance was as her tale went on. Breaking Away is a most enjoyable novella, but it is far more fulfilling on the level of psychological character study than as a piece of plot-driven writing. The interest lies in the intricacies of the relationships which Gavalda brings to light, and the inherent differences manifested in the siblings.
Someone I Loved was first published in France in 2002, and in the UK it made up part of the collection entitled I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere. Again, the prose here has been split up into distinctive short sections, all of which join up with one another to create a coherent whole. Someone I Loved also takes relationships as its main theme. It focuses upon Chloe, whose husband has decided to leave her and their two small daughters in order to continue his relationship with his mistress. In this novella, Gavalda ‘poignantly explores the fragility of human relationships’ – a theme which she seems eminently comfortable with, and which weaves its way through many of her stories. Here, rather than deal solely with the breaking up of a marriage, she shows how it is possible to forge relationships too – here, between Chloe and her father-in-law.
Chloe’s father-in-law, Pierre, is assisting her through her devastation. Chloe, our narrator, states that: ‘I think he is as unhappy as I am. That he’s tired. Disappointed.’ He decides to take her and her two little girls, Lucie and Marion, from their home in Paris to his mother’s house in the countryside. This sojourn is a learning curve of sorts, in which both protagonists get to know one another, and to leave their misapprehensions behind. Throughout, Chloe continually explains her new position in life: ‘You love a man, you have two children with him, and one winter morning, you learn that he has left because he loves someone else. Adding that he doesn’t know what to say, that he made a mistake.’
The emotional balance has been rendered perfectly. Chloe’s distraught feelings are balanced with happier scenes, and Gavalda uses this technique to present a full picture of her main character. It is quite heartwarming that Lucie and Marion are used as the glue which holds their mother together: ‘What a wonderful invention little girls are, I thought as I combed her hair. What a wonderful invention.’ Pierre too is determined to give his granddaughters everything which his own children missed out on due to his reserve as a parent: ‘”I’ve done everything wrong,” he said, shaking his head.’ Again, Gavalda’s prose and the narrative voice which she has crafted are so well done, and she is certainly an author who deserves to be read by many outside her native France.