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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Great and the Good

Michel Déon

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To purchase The Great and the Good

Title: The Great and the Good
Author: Michel Déon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1996 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 288 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Great and the Good - US
The Great and the Good - UK
The Great and the Good - Canada
La cour des grands - Canada
La cour des grands - France
  • French title: La cour des grands
  • Translated by Julian Evans

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Our Assessment:

B+ : teeters near the precipice of melodrama, but ultimately works quite well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 5/1/2017 John Harding
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/2/2017 Alison McCulloch
The Times . 7/1/2017 James Marriott

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s a shame we have waited so long for what is a wonderfully well-crafted and moving essay on the enduring and often illogical pain of first love, but good that at last Deon, now 97 and living in Ireland, will finally garner the plaudits here that he deserves." - John Harding, Daily Mail

  • "Déon (...) is such an elegant and reflective writer that his protagonist’s chronic detachment from his own life doesn’t matter in the end." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

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:

       The Great and the Good begins with a short scene set in the mid-1970s in which Arthur Morgan runs into onetime fellow university student Getulio Mendosa, reminding the now successful international businessman of more innocent days twenty years earlier, in 1955, when he first came to the United States. The novel then turns to those earlier times, beginning with Arthur's voyage to the US aboard the Queen Mary, the then-twenty-two-year-old Frenchman having won a: "Fulbright scholarship to study commercial law at Beresford" (a Harvard-like institution in Boston). It was on that voyage that he met Getulio -- and, more importantly, Getulio's sister, Augusta, as well as her friend Elizabeth Murphy; he also got to know one of his future professors, as well as Allan Porter, an important advisor to President Eisenhower.
       Arthur, raised by his struggling widow mother, travels in style: at great personal sacrifice, mom upgraded his passage to first class, so that then -- and from then on -- : "you're among the great and the good". The others can afford it -- even the professor -- but whether they are the 'great and good' is an open question. The Mendosa siblings are the children of the former Brazilian Minister for Finance and Economy, but were traumatized by their father's death and live a rather too carefree lifestyle, with gambler Getulio keeping a watchful eye on his sister, knowing her to be the family's bargaining chip and lifeline, if a proper marriage can be arranged. Elizabeth comes from a wealthy family, but has theatrical ambitions, and isn't particularly eager to play in the circles the Mendosas want to move in, preferring the bohemian. And everything is new to Arthur, who isn't quite an innocent, but is obviously in a bit over his head.
       Arthur falls hard for Augusta, but protective brother Getulio makes sure their contact is very limited, as he needs to preserve her to assure his continuing comfort. Still, over the course of the school year Arthur does see the girls again -- and also gets to know Getulio better, though the two never really become friends.
       The next summer, Arthur gets an internship with a broker (via Allan Porter, who, from a distance, keeps tabs on the young man, and nudges him to success), allowing him to spend some months in New York -- where the girls are. He is still kept away from Augusta, but has an affair with Elizabeth. Only near the end of the summer does Getulio allow Augusta and Arthur to get together -- because he wants to use Arthur's broker-contacts for some inside information.
       It seems that Augusta reciprocates Arthur's feelings -- and at the end of the summer, when she knows Getulio will be absent for some two weeks, she wants to get away with Arthur, just the two of them for a romantic retreat. It means that Arthur can't make the trip back to visit his mother in France like he'd promised, but it's a dream come true he can't pass up. And while they enjoy their romantic idyll -- in Key Largo, at Elizabeth's place -- Augusta can't escape her brother's hold and demands when they return to New York.
       It's an odd sort of love triangle, Elizabeth accepting that Arthur can't resist Augusta -- "She's unique. Really unique, whereas women like me are everywhere." -- but she also knows how much stands in the way of any possibility of Augusta and Arthur finding lasting happiness.
       After these fateful events -- a summer that was: "a turning point in his life", Arthur remembers -- the four go more or less their separate ways. Nevertheless, Arthur continues to pine over his lost love. He becomes a successful financier, but remains unattached. The story moves quickly forward, right up to the scene that opened the novel, twenty years after they first met, and Arthur runs into Getulio again and Getulio gives him Augusta's phone number, allowing him to get in touch with her -- if he still wants to.
       Of course, Arthur has to reunite with her -- and here the novel even briefly switches to the first person, Arthur taking over the narration himself in describing their encounter -- though the narrative returns to the third person to reveal the whole of it. Here, too, however, it is Arthur telling his story -- but now again in this slightly distanced way. As he says:

     'I usually find it difficult to talk about myself,' he said. 'I'm surprised how easy it is with you.'
     'You're not talking about yourself, you're much to introvert to do any such thing ! You're talking about other people, and through them I understand you better.
       Many of these episodes -- especially this twenty-years-after encounter -- drip with melodrama. So, for example, there are no less than four deaths of significant characters along the way, by the end (one more melodramatic than the next). Yet Déon pretty much pulls it off. As absurd as even the final romantic denouement might be, it kind of works.
       This is a very 'French' romance novel, with some rather loose sleeping around (including in Elizabeth's memorable stage debut -- a one-night stand, for obvious reasons) -- and a great deal of frank discussion of lovers' feeling for others (among other things). It's oddly -- and at times quaintly, in its would-be period-daringness -- dated, too, much of it taking place in the mid-1950s, and then the 1970s, in a novel written by a then old man in the mid-1990s -- a feeling reinforced by some of the would-be American color that Déon doesn't get quite right (beginning with Arthur's on-campus rooms being in a "fraternity house" (which it obviously isn't)). The over-the-top behavior of many of the characters -- both in terms of American frankness (as imagined by a French writer) and high-society excess -- are quite entertaining, too -- but are also part of the reason why it's impossible (for better and worse) to treat this novel as a truly 'literary' work, and why it so often comes dangerously close to outright melodrama. But Déon has undeniable talents, and if the pieces at first seem too broad and exaggerated -- some almost comically, even ridiculously so --, they do fit nicely into place in the book's -- and the storylines' -- resolutions.
       The Great and the Good is an odd piece of work, but certainly entertaining -- and even quite moving at times. If it all seems a bit overdone and simple for its first half, there's enough payoff in the second to justify it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 29 December 2016

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The Great and the Good: Reviews: Michel Déon: Other books by Michel Déon under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Michel Déon lived 1919 to 2016. He was a member of the Académie française.

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© 2016-2017 the complete review

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