Tag Archives: Madame Bovary of the Suburbs

Paperbacks to Look Out for in July 2018

Cover imageTwo titles were in tight competition for the top of this short list of July paperbacks, so tight that I’ve decided to take them in alphabetical order. Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists is one of those books surrounded by the kind of social media brouhaha that so often promises the world but delivers a pale imitation. This time, however, the hype is entirely justified. Benjamin hangs her glorious, engrossing story on a very clever hook: how would you live your life if you knew which day you were going to die? Her book follows four siblings each of whom deals with the knowledge in very different ways having gained it from a fortune-teller when they were children. Exploring themes of family, love, religion and grief, it’s an entertaining, compassionate and satisfyingly immersive novel.

Runner-up by an alphabetical whisker is Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home which follows the Bobs family, who have moved to Bacchus Marsh in an effort to escape Titch Bobs’ overbearing father, and their neighbour Willie Bachhuber who finds himself navigator in the Bobs’ attempt to win the inaugural 6,500-mile Redex Trial in 1953. Carey tackles themes of identity, racism, sexism and Australia’s shameful treatment of its indigenous people, all framed within the context of a riveting piece of storytelling with a rich vein of humour running through it.Cover image

Zipping over to France for the next two novels the first of which is Sophie Divry’s Madame Bovary of the Suburbs. 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. Hers is an unremarkable life – college, career, love, family, adultery, retirement then a fall – but Divry delivers it in perceptive and insightful prose, laced with a gentle humour.

Jane Delury’s The Balcony is set on a small estate just outside Paris and explores the lives of the people who have lived there over the last century, from a young American au pair who falls for her boss to the Jewish couple in hiding from the Gestapo. ‘The stories of those who have lived within the estate have been many and varied. But as the years unfold, their lives inevitably come to haunt the same spaces and intertwine, creating a rich tapestry of the relationships, life-altering choices, and fleeting moments which have kept the house alive through the last hundred years. . .’ say the publishers rather long-windedly but it’s an interesting idea.

Cover imageMy last July paperback choice is Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body about a daughter’s attempts to understand her mother’s life after she’s found dead at the foot of her stairs. It’s structured along the lines of a medical report, apparently. ‘What emerges is a picture of life lived in the shadows, as well as an attempt to discover how and why her mother died. To make sense of her own grief Laura must piece her mother’s body back together and in doing so, she is forced to confront a woman silenced by her own mother and wronged by her husband’ according to the blurb which sounds intriguing.

That’s it for July’s paperbacks. A click on either of the first three titles will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the last two, and if you’d like to catch up with July’s new titles they’re here.

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.