Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage

Cover imageIt’s been a very long time since I read Flaubert’s tale of a doctor’s wife, bored to tears by provincial life and seeking diversion in adultery, but not so long since I read Sophie Divry’s slightly eccentric debut, The Library of Unrequited Love which I thoroughly enjoyed. It’s always a risky business when an author writes their own version of a much-loved classic but Divry acquits herself beautifully with this story of M.A., born in the 1950s to parents who’ve lifted themselves up a notch in the world.

M.A. begins life on a housing estate on the outskirts of a small town near Lyon. She’s a bright student, if shy and given to bouts of ennui. She takes up a course of business studies in the city where she meets and falls in love with François, an anxious young man who fails at his studies but later discovers a talent for selling insurance. She finds herself a management position, then the puts a foot on the property ladder. Before too long the couple have two children and are settled into a detached house, enjoying occasional dinner parties and annual holidays when M.A. at last relaxes, for it is she that carries the domestic burden. Boredom inevitably rears its head resulting in a passionate affair with a colleague, ending only when he is transferred. A different phase of life begins – a new child, then the departure of the older children. Soon a realisation of ageing hits home bringing with it therapy, yoga lessons and endless phone calls to her best friend. Solace arrives in the form of grandchildren, then retirement must be dealt with together with the gradual winding down of mind and body, then widowhood. M.A.’s unremarkable life ends, as it does for many, with a fall. Now it is her children who are first in line.

The idea of following a life from cradle to grave in fiction is very appealing. Robert Seethaler did it exquisitely in A Whole Life and Divry also manages it beautifully. Her writing is perceptive and insightful, laced with a gentle humour. Many readers will recognise M.A.’s experiences: the longed-for freedom of student life then the misery of loneliness before making friends; the conviction that one’s relationship is uniquely special and what child hasn’t indulged in the revenge of imagining their distraught parents at their funeral when sent to their room? Throughout it all, Divry quietly emphasises the cyclical nature of life, frequently foreshadowing M.A.’s future and her repetition of her mother’s admonishments to her own children who will later help her through her old age just as she helped her mother. This is an expertly executed novel, vividly capturing the stages of a life each of us can’t help thinking of as exclusive to ourselves as we pass through them. As with Flaubert’s Bovary, M.A. is bedevilled by her expectations, deftly summed up in her feelings of anti-climax after a meticulously prepared dinner party:

‘M.A. had failed to understand that what fills a life is a way of being, the present tense of the sentence in which one is breathing, not an event situated in the future which, after consumed, will leave us standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’

Many of us could learn something from that as we feverishly anticipate the next big thing.

21 thoughts on “Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry (transl. Alison Anderson): A Flaubert homage”

  1. Like you I’m wary of re-tellings but the quote you pulled is enough to convince me that with this one we’re in safe hands. And if I needed more convincing, that cover alone would do it – charming.

    1. It’s lovely, isn’t it. Tells M.A.’s story in itself. I know what you mean about wariness and it probably helped that it’s such a very long time since I read the original but I think Divry does a fine job of bringing Emma up to date.

  2. I studied Madame Bovary for A level in the last century so it’s well and truly forgotten, apart from Flaubert’s famous line ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’! This sounds great – and perhaps reading it will dredge up additional memories of the original!

  3. I recall seeing several positive reviews of The Library when it first came out. It’s hard to get the balance right with something quirky – too much and it can tip over into slightly irritating whimsy. It’s good to hear that you liked this new one too. She’s clearly a writer with more than one string to her bow.

    1. I know what you mean about getting the balance right, Jacqui, Divry managed that very well with The Library. This one is entirely different, and quite a daring thing to attempt a modern take on a much-loved classic. Apparently it was well received in France, too.

  4. Goodness, barring the torrid affair I felt like you could almost be describing my own life! How troubling! This sounds a very interesting novel; I haven’t read Bovary (I think I have a copy) and think I would have to read that first to understand the allusions here though from the sounds of some of the comments perhaps the connection is a very light one?

    1. I suspect Divry would take that as a win! She has an uncanny way of particularising the general experience so that you can’t help but compare it to your own. It’s so long since I’ve read Flaubert that I’m sure that I didn’t appreciate all the allusions either but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel.

  5. Great last quote! It wasn’t too long ago that I read madame Bovary – I think I’ll keep this one in mind. I love that the book covers her entire life.

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