A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954 and almost immediately became an international success. It’s 18 year old author, Françoise Sagan, became one of the literary stars of France. It was made into an Otto Preminger film starring Jean Seberg just a few years later. To many, that’s sort of where Sagan’s story ends. She remained a well respected author in France, publishing well into the ’90s, but in the English speaking world she never eclipsed the success of her first novel.
It’s easy to see how Bonjour Tristesse could come to define a whole career. In it’s quick 120 pages it manages to imbue a uniquely jaded adolescent romance with insight and wisdom.
The novel follows 17 year old Cecile on vacation in the Riviera. Her father, Raymond, is a widower who has spent most of Cecile’s life hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend. He is spending this particular summer with voluptuous but empty-headed Elsa. While living with Raymond and Elsa, Cecile is allowed to pursue her own confused romantic pursuits. She’s particularly taken by Cyril, a vaguely conservative young man who disapproves of her father’s lifestyle. But when Raymond has a sudden turn of face, dropping Elsa to get engaged to an old family friend, the onset of stability and traditional parenting threatens to ruin Cecile’s summer, her relationship with her father, and her romance with Cyril.
It’s not just a simple coming of age tale. Cecile’s reaction to her father’s engagement has disastrous results, and we don’t get the comforting feeling in the end of lessons learned. Nor is this a simple romance. Yes, there’s definitely some young love and some intrigues to follow, but it’s too unsure of love as an ideal, and too ambiguous about monogamy to fit neatly into the genre. Instead, it’s a short, artful novel, with a brilliant narrative voice in the character of Cecile, a lot of thematic and emotional depth, plus some nicely realized and glamorous settings. Basically, I’d recommend it for anyone who likes 20th century French novels of the Sartre/Camus sort, or anyone who doesn’t mind it when philosophy and heady themes overwhelm a love story.
Review by Matthew