I picked up Suite Française in search of a heart-wrenching tale of love, loss, and war, and although I did get some of that, I think that what really makes Suite Française an emotional experience is the story behind it, not the story in it. As a book, it reads beautifully, but the structure and story itself didn’t sit right with me at times, but it serves as a marvellous insight into life during the French Occupation in the Second World War, as does the story of Némirovsky and her novel’s publication.
Suite Française was originally planned as a series of five stories narrating the lives of ordinary French citizens living in the Second World War under German occupation. However in 1942, about halfway through the creation of her novel, the author Irène Némirovsky, a Jew, was arrested and died in Auschwitz. The notebook containing this story was preserved by her daughters, and almost sixty years later in 1998, the story that she had written was published. Although I expected this novel to be a passionate love story, a sort of Birdsong-esque novel, I was surprised to find that this was much more. What Némirovsky accomplished was to create a looking glass into life in provincial France during the Occupation, an insight into the minds and lives of its people as they tried to resist Germany’s influence in their lives, while having to live alongside their German occupiers.
Suite Française is split into two novels – the two that the author had completed before her arrest. The first, ‘Storm in June’ follows a group of panicked Parisians as they flee the city under threat of invasion. These characters range from the wealthy Péricand family, the author Gabriel Corte and his mistress, and Maurice and Jean Michaud who must flee Paris on foot after being abandoned by their employer and planned travelling companion, and who are grieving for their son who is missing. The second part of the novel, ‘Dolce’, is set in a small French village a year after the first, and focuses on the Angellier household. In this house, Lucile, whose husband is a prisoner of war, is living with her mother-in-law. When a German officer, Bruno von Falk is billeted to their house, Lucile struggles as she begins to fall in love with the officer. Elsewhere in the village, tensions between the French and Germans rise as Benoît, a farmer, takes an intense dislike to the German in his house.
Although I enjoyed the various different characters, I don’t think that the structure of the book flowed well at all. For the first part of the book, ‘Storm in June’, I found it hard to keep reading and frequently grew bored. The characters were given one chapter before moving on to a different, unrelated character, as they aimlessly travelled through the French countryside. If these characters stood out clearer in my mind as human beings, I may have been more interested in their stories, but instead Storm in June felt like a mess. On the other hand, I couldn’t put down this book when I was reading ‘Dolce’. It was far more unified as it focused on a smaller group of characters, their stories, and relationships, rather than hopping around different stories. Rather, with ‘Dolce’ I felt invested in the story I was reading, and genuinely cared about where it would go. Once I had struggled through the first half of this book, everything was fine.
What I really enjoyed about Suite Française – or to be precise, ‘Dolce’ in Suite Française – was Némirovsky’s commentary on the situation at hand. The passages where she described the French and Germans living side by side were fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed her questioning of their differences. At the end, when the German troops are ordered to move on, there is a passage which highlights the complexities and conflict in the relationships between these people; they had lived together for months, had shared stories of their lives, had made friends, but now they were at war again. The relationship between Lucile and Bruno is another example of this. As they grow closer, they deny that there are any differences between them, and you believe that they can defy all odds, but it becomes tragically clear that the fact they are on opposing sides is still a barrier.
Lucile and Bruno’s relationship was beautifully written, although I feel that it lacked passion and emotion. Although Némirovsky described the characters discussing the issue of their nationalities, and suggested that they had overcome their differences, I didn’t understand why they loved each other. In fact, from one scene to the next, Lucile was suddenly exclaiming her love for Bruno with no explanation of how their relationship developed to this point. It seems unrealistic to me that their love simply grew out of a few conversations – especially when these conversations were not written for us to read. If this relationship had been a little more believable, the story itself would have felt more emotional to read, and the ending would have been even better.
Overall, Suite Française was an interesting book, and at times somewhat exciting, but overall I think it was a little too soft. I would have liked for there to be more tension, and to have felt more of a connection with the characters. On the other hand, Némirovsky’s description of life in Occupied France was fantastic; it simply would have been the icing on top of the cake if the smaller details and the lives of individual characters had been equally well explored.