Published: Aug 9, 2012
"I had a strong desire to write and some free time,” Françoise Sagan recalled. “And in two or three months, working two or three hours a day, I was done.”
Her book, "Bonjour Tristesse," was an instant best-seller in France in 1954.
Not bad for an 18-year-old first-time novelist.
In case you’re thinking the book is a 130-page stunt --- an easy-to-promote coming-of-age story by a girl just coming-of-age herself --- think again. “Bonjour Tristesse” delivers characters of considerable sophistication in an achingly sophisticated plot in a gloriously sophisticated setting. It’s a smart book and a wise one --- a terrific beach book for readers who like love complicated and sex real. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.]
Here’s the set-up. Cécile, the narrator, is the 17-year-old daughter of a 40-year-old advertising executive. Her mother’s dead. Dad's a womanizer. No one much cares that she’s failed her exams and is drifting.
Her father has rented a large white villa on the Mediterranean for the summer. It’s the house you dream of: “remote and beautiful, standing on a headline jutting out over the sea, hidden from the road by pine woods. A goat path led down to a small, sunny cove where the sea lapped against rust-colored rocks.” The water? "Cool and transparent.” Ahhhhhh...
Instantly, Cécile makes a conquest of Cyril, a 26-year-old who’s even more handsome than his small sailboat. Meanwhile her father, who’s passing the summer with a “mediocre but attractive” young hottie, has invited a second woman to the house --- Anne Larsen, cool, accomplished, his own age, an old friend of his dead wife.
Cécile senses trouble. Her “weak, frivolous and unreliable” father is going to dump the hottie and marry sober, mature Anne. This can’t be.
Anne doesn’t wait for the wedding ring to start taking responsibility for her future stepdaughter. She decrees that Cécile will stay in her room and read philosophy, in preparation for her exams. And worse: Cécile will not see Cyril again.
Hell hath no fury like a teenager scorned --- especially a spoiled, indolent teenager without a thought for anything but her own pleasure. As Cécile says, “I was more gifted in kissing a young man in the warm sunshine than in taking a degree.” And even more: “In order to achieve inner peace, my father and I had to have excitement.” So Cécile sets a plan in motion, brilliantly manipulating the players in this small drama.
Is Cécile a monster? Oh, please: She’s 17. If you’re shocked by her machinations --- and her hot, dangerous liaisons with her lover --- chalk it up to Sagan’s expertise as a writer. She knew what she was doing, and she intended to shock her 1950s readers. As she later wrote: "It was inconceivable that a young girl of 17 or 18 should make love without being in love with a boy of her own age, and not be punished for it." And more: People couldn't accept that this girl "should know about her father's love affairs, discuss them with him, and thereby reach a kind of complicity with him on subjects that had until then been taboo between parents and children."
“Bonjour Tristesse” was followed by more novels, fast cars and near-fatal accidents, cocaine and courtrooms. None of it brought Sagan love, but then, she swore that she didn’t believe in it: "Are you joking? I believe in passion. Nothing else. Two years, no more. All right, then: three.”
There was, apparently, a lot of Cécile in Françoise. Mostly, though, there was talent to burn --- enough talent to singe 20 million book buyers in 22 languages readers for half a century.