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COLUMN: Say hello to sadness with the novel 'Bonjour Tristesse'



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“Bonjour Tristesse” is a novel by Françoise Sagan. It was published in 1954, when the author was 18. Lauren Fazekas Buy Photos

I have a tendency to take books — sometimes on purpose and sometimes because I forget to put them back. Of course, I never steal books, it’s more like recycling — I take a few and leave a few.

I justified “borrowing” Françoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse” from my uncle while I was visiting him in Brussels this past spring. My explanation to nab this novel developed because at 19, Sagan was publishing “Bonjour Tristesse” as her first written work. A novice writer myself, I was curious to know why, on the back of the book’s cover, the Guardian was calling Sagan the “French F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

Published in 1954, “Bonjour Tristesse” tells the story of a 17-year-old girl vacationing on France’s Côte d’Azur with her single, Don Juan-esque father and his 20-something girlfriend, Elsa. The main character, Cécile, tells the story as she enjoys her carefree, unconcerned days spent on the ocean alongside her father's summer romance. 

Relaxation subsides when a friend of Cécile’s late mother arrives, planning to stay with the trio as an extra guest. Anne, as the woman is called, soon becomes the ruling figure of Cécile’s emotional life when she starts to get closer with Cécile’s father. This struggle becomes heightened when her father announces he’s going to marry Anne. 

Threatened by thoughts of complete upheaval to her bohemian lifestyle, Cécile devises a plan to separate her father from Anne’s tame and reserved grip. As Cécile would say regarding her adversary, “We are full of life and she will slink in between us with her sobriety; she will warm herself at our fire and gradually rob us of our enthusiasm; like a beautiful serpent she will rob us of everything.” 

The story is dramatic, but what girl isn’t somewhat theatrical at that age? In my opinion, the plot is secondary, it almost felt like background noise. The real story is being inside of Cécile’s head as she tries to reason with herself over what she should do with Anne.

Objectively, I can say Anne wasn’t a malicious character. She never intentionally harmed Cécile or her father. Yet, being so deeply involved in Cécile’s thoughts, I found myself subconsciously feeling suspicious of Anne, like at any moment she would become the evil step-mother of Cécile’s nightmares. I believe Sagan was able to write a piece which got me to adopt the attitude of the narrator, something I only realized once I started to write this review.

Now that I have finished this book, I have been left wondering what circumstances gave Sagan so much mature mental clarity to write this piece. The novel, according to a Guardian article published in 2014, said Sagan spent hours in Paris cafés writing, and over a culmination of 2 or 3 months, had finished “Bonjour Tristesse.” 

At it’s release, the novel was critiqued by French society as being too immoral, which only made it even more popular. The funniest part about the uproar in France was some people made up rumors about an older man writing this polished story under the disguise of a young girl in order to “create a stir.” 

I believe that this story was a concise and intimate look into the mind of a young girl and gives much more than just a typical plot about romance and loss. Sagan wrote this melancholic, mildly invasive story which I hope to use as an example in my own writing, and one of the lasting impressions I have from her first novel is that I am thoroughly impressed. 

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