A couple of years ago I picked up Grégoire Delacourt’s The List of My Desires to read on a train on my way to meet a friend. It looked a little fluffy but the synopsis was attractive and I thought it would suit if there were no seats in the quiet carriage. I polished it off between Bath and Birmingham. It had lots to say about sudden wealth and the way in which our fantasies can turn sour once realised unless we treat our good fortune with wisdom, all delivered in a delightfully playful style. Delacourt takes a similar tack with The First Thing You See this time turning his attention to our adulation of physical beauty, celebrity and the nature of desire.
Twenty-year-old car mechanic Arthur Drefuss lives alone, spending most evenings quietly watching boxed sets or movies. When he hears a knock on his door he hauls himself off the sofa – mid-Sopranos – only to find Scarlett Johansson on his doorstep. Granted she looks a little bedraggled but she’s as stunningly beautiful both in face and figure – about which Arthur has a bit of a thing – as she is on screen. She tells him she’s been visiting the Deauville Film Festival. Desperate to escape the glare of the spotlight for a few days, she’s stumbled upon Arthur’s village, hoping to find someone who would take her in. Of course, it’s not Ms Johansson. Jeanine Foucamprez unmasks herself after a day or so and tells Arthur that she’s longed for him since she saw his kindness to a young girl when modelling for a supermarket advertising campaign. These two are wounded souls: Arthur’s family is devastated by the loss of his little sister, his father taking off one day never to be seen again and his mother taking refuge in drink, while Jeanine has been cursed by her beauty since childhood, abused by her stepfather, endlessly slavered over by men and distrusted by women. Over the course of seven days, these two will find a way to love and trust each other, baring their souls and their hearts.
Delacourt uses a lighthearted, mischievous style to deliver quite a punch with his fable-like novel. Jeanine and ‘Ryan-Gosling-only-better-looking’ Arthur are both emotional casualties. She’s a prisoner of the voluptuous beauty which no one seems capable of seeing beyond but has brave hopes for Arthur. Everyone wants her to be their fantasy, sexual, or otherwise, but she longs to be loved for herself. Delacourt’s characterisation is affectionate and funny – PP, Arthur’s boss, likes to look at well-rounded ladies on the internet but is thrilled by the prospect of Arthur finding true love. Both Arthur and Jeanine’s stories are poignantly told but Delacourt avoids the maudlin, keeping his tone light and witty apart from rare moments of sadness. It’s a powerful message which begins with the novel’s title – a meditation on our obsession with beauty, celebrity and the consequences for those lumbered with one or both, delivered in a deceptively simple package stuffed full of filmic references and peppered with poetic quotations. It’s a little gem and it’s been a long time in the offing in translation. Shortly after I wrote this review the Guardian enlightened me as to just why: Ms Johansson was not amused, apparently.