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Suite Francaise (Review)

wonderfully-written-4

Suite Francaise
Irene Nemirovsky, 1941; published, 2004; Eng. trans., 2006
448 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
June 2008

Suite Francaise is especially poignant because of its legendary background: author Irene Nemirovsky died at Auschwitz in 1942; 60 years later, her manuscript was rediscovered by one of her daughters.

All this is set forth in the two appendices, which make for as gripping a story as Nemirovsky's fiction. It's hard to read Suite Francaise without that background knowledge breaking through.

Suite Francaise is actually two stories, originally envisioned as a part of an unfinished quintet (or "suite"). Both stories follow the plight of various characters as they negotiate their perilous paths through German-occupied France.

In the first story, various sets of characters flee Paris in 1940, while the German onslaught puts the French army on the run. As panic drives them into the countryside, the Parisans become refugees in their own country—nowhere to hide, nowhere to sleep, little to eat. Selflessness and cruelty exist side by side.

Sadly, however, Nemirovsky's characters turn out to be one-dimensional cartoons: rich = bad; poor = good. The result cheapens what is otherwise a fine portrayal of an historical moment.

The second story, which takes place in an occupied French village, is the better of the two—it's more focused, more intimate, less contrived, and the characters more compelling. As villagers struggle to co-exist with their German occupiers, humanity rears its gorgeous head above the fray of war. Enemies somehow find common ground for generosity, even friendship. Is this collaboration, accommodation, or human nature? A good question for discussion.

Be sure to see our Reading Guide for Suite Francaise.

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