This is one of those highly prolific books where it appears myth has surpassed the actual piece of fiction. Consistently touted as a novel written in revenge against the woman who so nearly ruined the open relationship that Beauvoir had with Jean-Paul Sartre, one would assume that this is a book of passion and sordid sex with the menage-a-trois.
This is so much more and far more complex than any blurb or summary may give you. The novel focuses on Francois, a theatre and fiction writer, and her long time relationship with theatre director and actor, Pierre. They are wholly consumed with each other and both regard each other as part of themselves – there cannot be one without the other. They are one. Xaviere, a high minded country girl from Rouen is persuaded to move to Paris by Francois who holds a deep desire to see Xaviere lead a successful and happy life. Slowly, Francois and Pierre form a menage-a-trois with Xaviere largely due to Pierre’s attraction to her. The relationship between the two women is much more ambiguous. Sullen, impulsive, sensual, self-obsessed -Xaviere possesses morals that borders on hedonistic and is wholly consume with her own satisfaction. With Xaviere remaining highly jealous of Francois’ long term relationship with Pierre, the menage-a-trois soon falls apart after the initial stage of bliss.
The character of Francois is highly imbued with existentialistic viewpoints and the novel is also about Francois attempting to discover who she is and her place within the world once everything and everyone in her life have been stripped away. Set during the eve of WWII, questions of love and life are consistently played in the mind of the characters. Gerbert , who is about to be sent off to war, is astounded to find that his long-time object of affection so easily returns his advances.
“He was filled with regret. In his life, nothing had ever had a tomorrow. He had admired afar all beautiful and passionate love-affairs; but a great love was like ambition, it would have been possible only in a world in which things were important, in which the words one spoke, and the things one did, left their mark; and Gerbert felt as if he were being cooped up in a waiting-room whose exit no future would ever open for him.” – p. 271
The novel is frustrating on numerous occasions. None of the characters are particularly likeable and everybody grates on my nerves all too often. Francois’s blindness and her constant attempts to be friends and forgive Xaviere is irritating when anybody can see how cruel Xaviere is – including Francois who tells us this herself. Xaviere is even more irritating with no redeeming features about her whatsoever. Whiny, bratty and spoilt by Pierre and Francois, I was initially horrified that Xaviere would feature prominently throughout the entire book. But, somehow, everything ties wonderfully well together. You don’t side with any characters (although I did love Gerbert so) so I suppose readers could remain somewhat objective. Nobody is perfect. The ending is somewhat surprising. I certainly did not see that coming.
This is a marvellous book – slow burning and something to be savoured and pondered. It is slightly difficult to read at times only because Beauvoir writes so eloquently about human nature that it hits so close to the heart with all those feelings and thoughts one would prefer to bury deep within ourselves.