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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

French Leave
(Breaking Away)

by
Anna Gavalda


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

To purchase French Leave



Title: French Leave
Author: Anna Gavalda
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001, rev. 2009 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 108 pages
Original in: French
Availability: French Leave - US
Breaking Away - UK
French Leave - Canada
L'Échappée belle - Canada
French Leave - India
L'Échappée belle - France
Ein geschenkter Tag - Deutschland
Il regalo di un giorno - Italia
  • French title: L'Échappée belle
  • US title: French Leave
  • UK title: Breaking Away
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B- : sprightly but terribly simplistic

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 8/7/2011 Adrian Turpin
NZZ . 25/1/2011 Georg Renöckl
Publishers Weekly . 28/3/2011 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "(R)eaders may find it hard to see beyond their snobbery, while an occasionally awkward translation (...) doesn’t help. Gavalda is one of France’s best-selling authors; on this form it’s hard to see why." - Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

  • "Anna Gavalda beherrscht die Kunst, Figuren mit wenigen Sätzen so zu charakterisieren, dass man sie zu hören und zu sehen glaubt. Dazu kommt ein sicherer Instinkt für Pointen. Ihre Methode hat aber auch Nachteile. Zwei davon sind in der Erzählung Ein geschenkter Tag deutlich: Zum einen werden ihre schnellen Striche nie zur Zeichnung, sondern stets zur Karikatur, zum anderen, und das wiegt schwerer, unterschätzt sie die Fähigkeit der Leser, diese auch zu erkennen." - Georg Renöckl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "However, the author's effort fails as both pastiche and social commentary; her take on the provinces and the sorry souls who inhabit them is ungenerous and trite, while the narrator's no-less-distinctive Parisian parochialism goes unchecked and unexamined. Though undeniably funny at times (...) the novel never gathers any steam and finally peters out with a three-page iPod playlist, which brings bittersweet tears to Garance and, to the reader, tears of boredom." - Publishers Weekly

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:

       Near the end of French Leave (published as Breaking Away in the UK) the narrator, Garance, reflects on the wonderful, carefree time she has just spent with her three siblings:

     For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist ? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey ? To thumb our noses at it ? Or make our little honorarium on the side ? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair ?

     How much longer until we become too old ?
       In fact, that ship would have seemed to have sailed a long time ago -- Garance is in her early thirties, two of the siblings already have families (one of which has already fallen apart). I.e. they should be all growed up by now. But a big problem with this story is that they don't seem to have realized that yet. Instead, they "talked about the same things we talked about at the age of ten, or fifteen, or twenty" and see it as "the hand of God" when the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive comes on the car radio (and, of course, immediately wail the chorus in unison ...).
       This oddly nostalgic work is a teen novel (in every respect), populated by stunningly immature adults -- first and foremost the obnoxiously petulant and self-involved narrator, Garance. The novel begins with Garance's brother, Simon, picking her up for the drive to a wedding; Simon's wife, Carine, is also along for the ride -- and pedantic, uptight Corine is a big thorn in Garance's side. Acting like the spoiled kid she obviously still is, Garance does her best to grate and irritate (the reader, as much as Carine); it's a surprise she doesn't spend the trip kicking the back of Carine's seat.
       Garance complains that Carine is: "Always judging". She has a point -- Carine is portrayed as an absolutely horrible woman -- but unfortunately Garance is just as judgmental, and just as obnoxious, just in a different way.
       They make a detour to pick up yet another sibling, sister Lola, and then when they arrive at the wedding the three siblings decide they've had enough and they just flee -- to seek out the fourth musketeer, Vincent. (Simon does kindly leave a note to Carine on the back of a beer coaster and dumps her stuff in front of another car (though they thoughtfully do come back to deposit her vanity case, which they initially had forgotten about).)
       Vincent lives at the family's run-down château (!), "waiting to start a family and restore the moats" -- and guiding tourist groups around it. When all four kids are reunited there they of course have a blast, reliving old times, going to a local wedding and partying into the night:
       It was all so picturesque.
       No. I can put it better than that, and less condescendingly: it was a moment to savor.
       Half road-trip novel, have clique-novel (the clique being the siblings, who really don't take to outsiders -- Lola's marriage is over, Simon and Carine seem ill-matched), French Leave is entirely adolescent. The kids (Lola's and Simon's) are entirely out of the picture, barely even coming up in conversation: no wonder, since this gang of four is far too immature to pass for adult. No wonder one of Vincent's helpers, Nono, asks about both Lola and Garance: "They still virgins ?": their behavior and bearing is so infantile that it's hard to believe they are in any way mature (even though Lola has actually borne children).
       Lola's foray into adulthood ended in a messy divorce, and Simon's marriage -- with his handle-with-care wife -- is hardly anything anyone would want to imitate: no wonder they all prefer regressing to times gone by and putting on the old playlist.
       Early on, when Lola joins the ride, Garance takes a break from her rapid-fire narration and commentary:
     Then we swapped sister stories. I'll skip that scene. We have too many codes, shortcuts and grunts. Besides, without the soundtrack, it's meaningless.
       Unfortunately she doesn't see that the rest of her narrative actually isn't much different: she and her siblings live in their own little world (with their own soundtrack ...), treating everyone outside this closed circle with disdain and mocking it. They're a pathetic bunch of junior high school kids, nothing more, all codes and giggles and grunts and soundtracks -- all of which is meant to exclude others and the real, adult world.
       Okay, Gavalda does give Garance a lively (if also grating) voice -- though it's more like that of a clever, short-attention-span twelve-year-old (well, the twelve-year-olds of contemporary film and TV) than a woman in her thirties. There's even an (underdeveloped) explanation of what and where things went wrong -- and you guessed it, of course, that it's like Philip Larkin always said, it's mum and dad that fucked 'em up (and good):
     Because they're the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and farther. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that it would just come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.
     They got it wrong.
     The confidence never came.
     So here we are. Sublime losers.
       Amen to that.
       Garance's brief self-aware insight (albeit without her taking any responsibility for her own failures, but rather pinning it all on the parents) would have been a great starting point. Instead, in typical pouty teen fashion, Garance and her sibling-cohorts just move on, taking down the easy targets all around them, beginning with Carine.
       Gavalda does offer a lively narrative voice: quick, sometimes sharp, sometimes funny, French Leave is a short story (barely a hundred pages) that zips along. Sure, it's all a teen-Angst wallow in mid-life crisis disguise, but it is damned lively. Still, this is simplistic YA lit for adults -- with French class (self-)consciousness thrown into the near-unbearable mix.
       It's readable -- and there are undeniable qualities to it, comparable to good TV soap opera moments --, but overall it's pretty hard to take.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 April 2011

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Links:

French Leave: Reviews: Other books Anna Gavalda under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Anna Gavalda was born in 1970. She has written several immensely popular works of fiction.

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© 2011 the complete review

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