Book review: David Foenkinos’s Delicacy

DelicacyDelicacy by David Foenkinos
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I should have guessed from the cover. ‘Like an Amélie for grown-ups’, said the blurb. But I thought that Amélie was for grown-ups. So, I could gather from the back of the book that it meant Amelie, but a little sadder, as the author has made Nahalie, the lead character, a widow, having lost her husband in an accident. And then, with a reference to Amélie partway through the book, it was clear that the author was hoping to write another version of Amélie. And from a quick internet search, I see that perhaps the author intended that the book be made into a film, like Amélie, and it was (though it got poor reviews).

So, while it’s true I was just looking for a light holiday read, I will end up writing a negative book review instead. Often, I don’t like to trash books, to each his own, etc. But I think having sold thousands of copies of Delicacy and having made a nice profit from selling the movie rights, the author won’t be paying attention. The book was apparently nominated for all the major French literary prizes. I’m dumbfounded by this.

It’s interesting that I read this just after Alain Duceaux’s The Lovers, another book about a romantic relationship, written in short, allusive pieces of narrative. In my review, I said that in a book as short as this, any mistake risks losing readers. And I see by the reviews on Goodreads that he did lose many readers. For me, I was willing to go along with the conceit of the novel, perhaps charmed by the fact that the lovers are men, and that I liked his language and descriptions.

With Delicacy, Foenkinos loses me immediately. Techniques such as using asterisks, writing lists, and alluding to popular culture or other works of art have been used by others, in a more in-depth and clever way. The cute philosophising, that, for example, many Natalies act in a similar way, making our heroine unusual, is cloying. Only a tenth of the way through the book, the same paragraph includes ‘Years went by in this way’ and ‘Time went by with such fluency’, so as to speedily kill off Natalie’s husband, leaving her free for the main romance of the book. The language is leaden. About the hero of the book, Markus: ‘He wanted to take a voyage in her hair. It was his sensitivity, his care not to rush the situation that made Natalie feel good. Even so, he was proactive.’ What? Is it a problem of translation? Does it sound better in French? Am I truly at odds with French culture?

Only in the last days, a high school friend lost her husband of nearly 25 years, suddenly to cancer. She is in the midst of unimaginable grief. So, I actually found this fable, this idea of a widow learning to love again, offensive in how breezy it all is. It reminded me of a string of American flims, which infuriated me, that always had kids who were orphaned, and had to live with a new stepmother or stepfather or the best friend of their mother, and instead of being affected by the terrible grief of losing a parent, they are simply out of sorts and resentful until the end of the movie, by which time they are won over.

In the meantime, what really offends me are the gender relations. While the book was written a decade ago in France, and I know the French have always been a bit more lenient of extra-marital affairs and traditional gender roles, the minor plot point, that Nathalie’s boss, married, decides he is in love with her and sexually harasses her, is hard to read. The major plot point, that a beautiful woman can fall in love with an unattractive but unusual, witty man, is perhaps the author’s wish fulfilment, but reminds me of the Hollywood stereotypes, a man of any shape or size and any age can attract the most gorgeous of women because … those are the rules of the game. It’s distasteful. Natalie is described mostly in physical terms. While there is a playful challenge to the idea that an oafish man can attract a beautiful woman (their colleagues question this), the main theme seems to be that love is blind. Except that it isn’t. As Natalie is beautiful and Markus isn’t. Which continue to be pointed out.

While for most of the book, I was finding it fairly awful but readable, this changed in the last third of the book, where I had to force myself to get to the end … for it really is unfair to review a book that you haven’t read to the end. As the uncomplicated plot plays itself out, Foenkinos pulls out a final spoonful of treacle, wrapping the inescapable conclusion of the book in more sweetness by ending the book with Natalie revisiting her childhood while visiting her grandmother. Agh. I found this a terrible, terrible book.

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