The gg2p Book of the Month
A Certain Smile, by Françoise Sagan
I started reading Françoise Sagan’s novels, in translation, when I was a teenager and thought the smell of Gitane cigarettes was sexy. She was one of the most famous French women and Parisiennes in modern literature. Her stories fueled my love for everything French and especially for the city of Paris. I liked to imagine myself living the protagonist’s Parisian life in her Haussmann apartment or chambre de bonne or in a villa on the French Riviera, wearing her 1950s clothing and falling in love with French men.
Françoise Sagan is best known for her first novel, Bonjour tristesse (Hello Sadness), which is set on the French Riviera. The novel caused quite a scandal when it was published in 1953, as Sagan was only 18, and the story is about adultery and the sexual education of a teenage girl. Sagan was celebrated from the very beginning of her career and led a dangerous life driving fast cars, partying and loving both men and women.
Her second novel, Un certain sourire (A Certain Smile), was and is one of my favorites, set in 1950s Paris. The narrator, Dominique, is a 20-year-old law student at the Sorbonne. She is bored by her studies and her loyal boyfriend, Bertrand, who introduces her to his businessman uncle, Luc, and his wife, Françoise. Dominique finds Luc far more exciting, risky and forbidden than boys of her age. She falls in love with the older man, and they become secret lovers. As the French say, “Les histoires d’amour finissent mal en général,”* and this story is no exception.
The novel would probably be classified as chic lit today, but it has become a classic of modern French literature. When the book was published, a reviewer at the San Francisco Examiner wrote, “The reader is given the feeling of having opened a young girl’s intimate diary by mistake. But whoever put such a diary down?—especially when the author is as sensitive, experienced, gifted and freshly talented as Mlle. Sagan!”
* “Love stories usually end badly.”
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