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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In Those Arms
(In His Arms)

Camille Laurens

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase In His Arms

Title: In Those Arms
Author: Camille Laurens
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: French
Availability: In His Arms - US
In Those Arms - UK
In Those Arms - Canada
Dans ces bras-là - Canada
Dans ces bras-là - France
In den Armen der Männer - Deutschland
  • French title: Dans ces bras-là
  • US title: In His Arms
  • UK title: In Those Arms
  • Translated by Ian Monk
  • Awarded the Prix Femina, 2000

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Our Assessment:

B : playful, often clever, but not quite focussed enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph D 28/10/2003 Helen Brown
The Guardian . 6/12/2003 Virginia Rounding
The Independent . 7/11/2003 Emma Hagestadt
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/5/2004 Emily Nussbaum
The Spectator . 30/12/2000 Anita Brookner
TLS . 17/10/2003 Stephanie Cross

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, though most liked aspects of it -- and found it 'French'

  From the Reviews:
  • "Her diffuse descriptions of encountered men are punctuated with blisteringly unrevelatory ruminations on the nature of maleness (.....)(D)espite the odd pleasing phrase, I'm afraid this novel couldn't hold me. What is this book ? Do you really want me to tell you ? Fair enough. It's pages, print, cover, chapters, thoughts, letters, blurb… recycling bin." - Helen Brown, Daily Telegraph

  • "At the end, there really is no end. Just a sense of endlessly starting over, a woman inevitably drawn to a man, a man to a woman, hoping against hope that the unbridgeable chasm will this time be bridged, the essential otherness overcome. In Those Arms, beginning in a café, is perhaps best read in a café (preferably in Paris where people do that sort of thing), punctuating the brief chapters by gazing into the street, hoping that the man, or indeed the woman, may pass by." - Virginia Rounding, The Guardian

  • "(A) very French meditation on love and desire, and the kind of scenario unimaginable in the waiting rooms of Relate." - Emma Hagestadt, The Independent

  • "It's all extremely French (the book was a best seller in Laurens's native country) and at first glance may resemble the quasi-decadent, semi-erotic pseudo-wisdom of Nin. (.....) But Laurens slowly peels away her narrator's panicky philosophizing to reveal a hidden core: a shrewd close-up of a woman struggling to decode her own disastrous marriage -- a connubial nightmare that has left her sophisticated in the messiest sense." - Emily Nussbaum, The New York Times Book Review

  • "What is engaging in this frequently disturbing account is the heroine's demand for the impossible: she seeks to understand her partners, and those who are not yet her partners, and more, to become them. Many transferences are at work here; disappointment is enmeshed with a kind of heroism. Even the bald honesty is heroic, as is the lyrical conclusion." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "Laurens's novel is more concerned with the cerebral than the carnal, and while the narrator and her fictitious protagonist are earnest in their self-examination, they are adept at elegantly undermining the threat of self-indulgence. (...) (T)he inability of the actual to conform to the ideal is an integral part of love's narrative, as well as those narratives concerned with love -- a fact of which Laurens is well aware, and which her conclusion playfully exploits." - Stephanie Cross, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Camille Laurens' In Those Arms (transformed into In His Arms for the US market) is a seriously playful book about a woman and her relationships with men. It is written in the first person, the narrator a librarian and author (like the actual author) named Camille who is writing a book "about men, about the love of men: as loved objects and loving objects". She understands that of the book-within-the book: "some might think that this character was also me, given that I will be doing the writing", but insists: "But the truth will be irrelevant." But it's hard not to see the book as an Annie Ernaux-like autobiographical fiction (or barely fiction).
       The narrator envisions the book as a grand ball, herself drifting from partner to partner, "from arm to arm". Dance Card is the first title that springs to her mind, but In Those Arms is even closer to the mark. The novel consists of short chapters, covering the men in her life -- many of whom she returns to repeatedly, notably her father, her husband (from whom she has just gotten divorced), her editor, and the man the book begins with, a stranger she sees and yet immediately knows: "He was the one."
       This stranger turns out to be a psychoanalyst named Abel Waits, and she pretends to be a patient in order to seduce him:

I was set on seducing a man, but not by the normal approach of concealing everything from him -- or at least obscuring the heart of the matter. But instead by telling him everything -- or at least the heart of the matter -- that essential part of each of us that, once it is revealed, means that we are or are not loveable.
       So the novel becomes a multi-layered confessional, the narrator's voice the dominant one, even when she relates her encounters with others (including the psychoanalyst).
       Camille needs men. They are an affirmation, a connexion with another that can make her whole (which she clearly does not feel she is). She isn't even capable of spending much time with anyone who couldn't be interested in her -- women, or homosexuals, or men in their purely professional capacity. If the possibility of sex isn't there, they're useless. Sex, ultimately, is the key:
Making love means being a woman and being filled by a man -- I'm talking about penetration, what I mean is, when you are penetrated, you also penetrate the other's mystery, or at least you hope you can.
       Not surprisingly, she's not particularly successful with this approach. She can fool herself in the short term, in brief, all-consuming passion, but it doesn't last. Even men, as it turns out, are slightly more complex -- but she almost never is able to move beyond this level of relationship.
       She writes about the men in her life: she always has. But even the first time she wrote about making love, in her diary, she framed
her account as if it was one of the extracts from novels that she often copies out among her letters and her favorite poems. She writes it down in inverted commas and in the third person singular
       Instead of honestly capturing the experience she distances it through writing -- and it's what she still appears to be doing.
       She offers a different justification for the act of writing, too:
     I'm writing a book about me, a novel about the men in my life -- that's what I say when I'm asked. Subject: men.
     But the truth, the real truth, is that I'm writing to men, for men, for them. Writing is the thread that will join us. By writing, I'm attracting attention. Subject: me. i'm full of men, that's the subject.
       She must know she's deluding herself: boasts of being man-full aren't likely to win over many men. No wonder the ones she is unburdening herself to -- her editor, a psychoanalyst -- are in a business rather than casual relationship with her.
       In Those Arms offers her whole life-story. Significant figures include the father -- the not quite right relationship where it presumably all started to go wrong -- and the son who died shortly after birth: a man of her own creation, not made for this world. In between, there are many others, starting from her mother's lover (who switched places with her father on a regular basis) to her own husband, as well as a variety of fleeting lovers. The back and forth reinforce the sense of her confusion -- great desire, seeking an unrealistic fulfilment, leading invariably to disappointment -- but gives little sense of progress or growing self-awareness.
       Words are part of her problem: she's happiest without them:
So far as she is concerned, this kind of encounter attains utter perfection. With no words, they avoid the interference of lies. Love is when you say nothing -- what could you say of interest ?
       Nevertheless, she turns to words to try to get a grip on things: she is a writer, she goes to the psychoanalyst. She tries to explain love and desire. Needless to say, silent perfection is a rare moment for her.
       It all adds up to a fairly messy book, a fill of episodes that seem to lose focus. The men in her life also remain curiously distant -- presumably, because her focus is so much on herself, and the men are useful only in how they allow her to attain some sort of self-awareness. What redeems the novel is the occasional scene that rings true, and the well-expressed insight and frustration. Sometimes it actually does lead somewhere:
     But it isn't that easy, is it ? Me Tarzan you Jane. Difficult, isn't it ? If we could name each other, if we were able to introduce ourselves in the clarity of our sexes, in the sureness of our being, in the proclamation of that double truth -- Me and the Other, the Other and Me -- we wouldn't write, there would be no stories, no subject, no object.
       In Those Arms is an interesting book, a writer and a woman flailing to express the fundamental, revealing herself and yet knowing words can't express what she means to convey and wants to feel. Laurens tries too much, pulled in different directions: it's realistic -- lives are like that -- but makes even such a short book unwieldy. But there's a good deal here that is of interest, and some of it is very nicely done.

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In Those Arms: Reviews: Camille Laurens: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Camille Laurens (actually Laurence Ruel-Mézières) was born in 1957.

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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