Madame Bovary of the Suburbs by Sophie Divry, published by MacLehose Press on 27th July 2017
The story of a woman's life, from childhood to death, somewhere in provincial France, from the 1950s to just shy of 2025.
She has doting parents, does well at school, finds a loving husband after one abortive attempt at passion, buys a big house with a moonlit terrace, makes decent money, has children, changes jobs, retires, grows old and dies. All in the comfort that the middle-classes have grown accustomed to.
But she's bored.
She takes up all sorts of outlets to try to make something happen in her life: adultery, charity work, esotericism, manic house-cleaning, motherhood and various hobbies - each one abandoned faster than the last. But no matter what she does, her life remains unfocussed and unfulfilled. Nothing truly satisfies her, because deep down - just like the town where she lives - the landscape is non-descript, flat, horizontal.
What initially drew me to this title was the idea of it being a contemporary reimagining of Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary' which is one of my favourite books. This isn't a direct retelling as the author takes her main character in a slightly different direction to Flaubert but there are a lot of similarities. Translated from the French by Alison Anderson, this was a story that I could identify with at times and which charts the path of one woman's life from cradle to grave.
The book had an extremely unusual and unique narrative style which at first I wasn't sure I was going to get on with. It employs a second person narrative which I'm not entirely sure I've come across before but Divry uses it so effectively that it just fits the story beautifully. It almost seems to speak to the reader and I think this works well with the idea that the main character, M.A. shares a fate which could belong to any one of us. Her story is universal.
Never properly named, M.A. is seen growing from childhood into adulthood and traversing the various stages of life's well trodden path. She grows up longing to move away from her parents and her childhood home and embark upon a new adventure. She goes to university, she has her first boyfriend, she marries, has children and does everything that is expected of her, even while she wishes for something more. Something which she can't quite name and always seems to be just out of her reach. The circle of life is effectively portrayed as she grows older and morphs into the role that her parents once had.
This was a very different read to the one that I started out thinking it was going to be and while it reflects many aspects of the original, it is also exquisitely unique. I love the way in which Divry presents the character of M.A. and her search for more out of life. She is never content with what she has and always appears to be looking towards the next thing and the next without ever truly being satisfied. This is a book that I would highly recommend by an accomplished author who I will be keeping my eye on in the future.