Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

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I have a great regard for teenagers. Several decades ago, I was one. But you wouldn’t want a teenager’s finger on the nuclear button. This story is why: Bonjour Tristesse takes place in the 1950s on the French Riviera, where Cecile and her father Raymond have taken a summer villa. Raymond is a handsome, feckless arse who agrees with the last person he spoke to. Cecile, as she would, worships him. Into this set-up comes the ‘beautiful serpent’, Anne. Cecile loves her like a mother-figure – until she realises that she is going to actually marry her father and really become one. This is terrible, because the influence of Anne (aloof, clever, refined, something in fashion, a one-woman finishing school for Cecile) will turn the pair into squares, not the wonderful hipsters they are now. They will have a clean, conventional life. No more dancing ‘in various bars to the soft music of a clarinet’. Anne will ‘gradually rob us of our enthusiasm’, Cecile despairs. Anne, therefore, has got to go. What follows is a less benign version of those saccharine movies in which wise children conspire to sort out their kindly but useless single parents’ love lives, often following bereavement. In one lovely phrase, Cecile admits that her father’s ‘aversion to ugliness often led us to associate with stupid people’. Idiots are the price you pay for being among the beautiful folk. Cecile is particularly funny: a pretty, manipulative, amoral cow. No wonder so many people like her – and will do anything for her. She enlists dad’s rejected girlfriend Elsa, utterly blind to the emotional turmoil she is creating. No, not blind – she just really doesn’t care as long as her plan for nuptial destruction works. ‘It seemed to me I was being rather too melodramatic, but I saw Elsa’s beautiful green eyes fill with pity,’ Cecile says, as though conducting an experiment in controlled conditions. ‘For the first time in my life I had known the intense pleasure of getting under another person’s skin,’ she adds, wonderingly, thrilled by her new power. But the game is going to have consequences. This novel could not be more French if it came with a Francoise Hardy record attached.

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