13 November 2015

Suite Française by Irène Némivrosky - Book Review

It has been a very long time since I last gave a book five full stars on Goodreads; this book deserved all of them and more. It is a classic, a truthful portrait of a time and a suffered painting of eternal human emotions.
The author, Irène Némivrosky, was a Jew born in Ukraine and who lived and worked in France for her (short) life. She was deported to Auschwitz, which is the reason why Suite française lacks the last three parts, and there she died. Her notebooks were kept by her daughter who did not read them thinking they were a personal journal, until in the 90s she decided to bring them to a French archive, and reading them, she found out they were novels. Suite française was firstly published in 2004 and quickly became a bestseller. 

Suite française is an ensemble of stories set in World War II France (specifically after June 1940). It's divided into two parts: Storm in June and Dolce. In the first one, we follow the misadventures of a variety of family units and individuals, on both ironical and tragic notes, who flee Paris before the German advance in the city and after the event. The second one portrays the daily life in a small French country town called Bussy in the first peaceful months of the German occupation.

Even though from its plot the book could sound like any other Second World War narrative, it is so unique! This is not just an incredible novel and chronicle of its time, but also a very contemporary one for the values it conveys. Anyone could identify themselves or other known people with the portraits that Némivrosky makes of her characters and their human emotions. Love, fear, hope, gratefulness - these are the sentiments that the author recreates in a tangible way and that draw the reader inside the book more than any good story can do.

I found the two parts of the book to have a different function, and even though I was super excited to read about the second part when the romance-during-war happened (I had been mislead by the images of the film; this book is not a romantic book at all), I am considering the idea that the first part might be more of a higher substance. This is because the portrait that the author creates of families escaping their homes, their fear and attachment to material valuables, and tricks made to save one's life is so vivid and realistic that it seems to have been written on the go. The impression one gets is that of watching a history documentary of the time showing the civilians trying to save themselves in the midst of the war, almost as if Némivrosky took notes while watching them run away during the night. In this section I really liked the character of Gabriel Corte, a snobbish writer who only thinks of how much art is suffering from the disasters of the war, rather than the great human loss, and of course of himself. His selfishness is annoying and at the same time sarcastic. I also liked the character of Mrs Péricard who is just as selfish, and who is so into her own valuables that she forgets to take her old father-in-law with her and the children when running away. In all bourgeois characters, there is a subtle irony by the author who, I guess, depicted her own class, which I loved.

The second section of the book, Dolce, is very refreshing. From the ending of the first part of the book the reader is introduced to some new characters and a merrier atmosphere that makes her realise the intensity of the war descriptions and the need for a break. The beautiful summery portrait of a French village where girls flirt with the German officers, even if they know that they have been the enemy until then, is pleasantly light-hearted in contrast to the war. It even reminded me of Pride and Prejudice's daughters' trips downtown where they met the officers and chatted with them on Sundays. I enjoyed the secret relationship between Lucile and Bruno; they share something more than a friendship, which however cannot be described as love. After watching the trailer of the film I had very high expectations, but the relationship between the two doesn't get very far in the book in the romantic sense of it, but more as a human contact in a time of great difficulty. We have to remember that that would have been a precarious relationship in a background where breaking the rules meant risking one's own life.

Ultimately, what I loved mostly about this book was its style! It's so well written that it should be instantly added to the list of classic French novels. It has that French complex and rich but smooth style that you can find in classics (you can tell from a good translation), and I regret not having read it in its original language. It's rich with vivid, ironical and insightful descriptions of landscapes and human beings with emotions.

Suite française is a beautifully written, deep book with a great plotline and characters. I would recommend school students to read it to get more into history while studying World War II, or to historical fiction fans like me. Don't read this if you're looking for a happy book; there's a lot of sadness and grief in it, even if it didn't make me cry. I hope you enjoyed the review, please share your thoughts on Suite française if you read it in the comments :)

My edition: Irène Némivrosky, 2014. Suite francese. Milano: Garzanti. Pages: 411. Good font; great translation (to Italian); hard cover but easy to carry around!

Stars on Goodreads: 5/5


  1. The film of this is also quite good - it's far more complicated than a simple wartime romance, and is very focused on the realities of surviving under occupation.

    1. I've actually just reviewed it! I really enjoyed it too :) Yes, I would say it's very accurate in representing the hard conditions of civilians during the war, besides being fascinating for its love story.
      Here's the link to the review in case you're interested: :)

      Assia |

  2. I really enjoyed your explanation of the author's background! I never knew that, I assumed it was written by a contemporary author. It reminds me of Hans Fallada's Alone In Berlin, that had a 'resurgence' a few years back and before that he was unknown. I will definitely have to give it a read, hopefully the English translation will be just as good. I'm glad you found time to read it though! :-)

    1. Thanks a lot, I'm glad you enjoyed :) I shall check him out, I've never heard of him. You should defintiely read Suite Francaise, it's an incredible book, especially if you like historical fiction like me. :) xx