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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Girl's Story

Annie Ernaux

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To purchase A Girl's Story

Title: A Girl's Story
Author: Annie Ernaux
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Girl's Story - US
A Girl's Story - UK
A Girl's Story - Canada
Mémoire de fille - Canada
Mémoire de fille - France
Erinnerung eines Mädchens - Deutschland
Memoria di ragazza - Italia
Memoria de chica - España
  • French title: Mémoire de fille
  • Translated by Alison L. Strayer

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Our Assessment:

A- : exceptionally well-handled

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 7/4/2016 Marianne Payot
Le Monde . 29/3/2016 Raphaëlle Leyris
NZZ . 17/10/2018 Paul Jandl
The NY Times Book Rev. . 26/4/2020 Joumana Khatib
The New Yorker . 20/4/2020 Madeleine Schwartz
The Spectator . 4/4/2020 Sarah Ditum
Le Temps . 1/4/2016 Eléonore Sulser
Die Zeit . 9/10/2018 Iris Radisch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mais que cherche Annie Ernaux ? L'art "de mettre en forme son absence future", en puisant, inlassablement, dans sa mémoire afin d'en extraire les sources du moi et de l'émotion" - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "In der Biografie von Annie Ernaux ist der Sommer 1958 die grosse Leerstelle, um die auch ihre anderen Bücher kreisen. Es geht darin um die Lust, aber auch um Gewalt. (...) Die Achtzehnjährige hält das, was an ihr ungeschliffen ist, für einen Makel, der die Gewalt erst provoziert. Sie ist in einem grausamen Augenblick gefangen, der für die grosse literarische Psychologin Annie Ernaux zum Auftrag wird." - Paul Jandl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Ernaux evokes the mood of that summer, drawing on her sensory memories and calling up her desires of that time. Revisiting painful periods is hardly new territory for writers, but Ernaux distills a particular power from the exercise." - Joumana Khatib, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ernaux is an unusual memoirist: she distrusts her memory. She writes in the first person, and then abruptly switches and speaks about herself from a distance (.....) In this attempt at unearthing, her prose combines the spare and the unsparing. (...) But Ernaux's writing is rubbed down, simple, almost clinical in its exactness." - Madeleine Schwartz, The New Yorker

  • "A Girl's Story is intoxicatingly specific about time and place, it is also a story that belongs to any number of selfconsciously clever girls with appetite and no nous, who must, like Ernaux, reckon with the entanglements of sexism and sexuality. But it is above all personal. In reclaiming the girl she was, Ernaux becomes her own Orpheus." - Sarah Ditum, The Spectator

  • "[É]crivant Mémoire de fille, Annie Ernaux met en lumière la façon même dont nous vivons nos vies. Elle décrit l’élaboration des romans, des récits que, mentalement, nous tissons à chaque instant, qu’on efface et qu’on reprend. Romans d’amour, romans d’une destinée, romans d’un jour, ces récits intérieurs qui viennent, constamment, recouvrir, dévoiler, expliquer les faits, les gestes, les événements de nos vies. Ce mouvement incessant de la mémoire toujours retrouvée qui donne du sens à nos vies, Annie Ernaux le rend visible, palpable, présent." - Eléonore Sulser, Le Temps

  • "In ihrem wahnsinnigen Tempo, in dem sie an diesem Nachmittag in ihrem Rückzugsort vor den Toren von Paris redet, klingt dieser Schwindel nach, der sie vor 60 Jahren erfasste, als sie den ersten heftigen Auffahrunfall mit ihrem Zeitalter, mit ihrer Herkunft erlitt." - Iris Radisch, Die Zeit

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:

       In A Girl's Story Annie Ernaux looks back at her late teens and early twenties, a time of (halting) transition to adulthood and independence across several stations -- a succession of schools, in particular --, and specifically the foundational event of her first intimate experience with a man, in 1958.
       Having completed her baccalauréat at the convent school where she had been a star pupil, Annie Duchesne -- as she still was then -- will begin her studies at the Lycée Jeanne-d'Arc in Rouen in the fall of 1958; before that, she has a summer job at a summer camp -- her first step into the real, adult world on her own, as she has grown up in an incredibly over-protective household. She has basically never even spoken with a boy:

     Her mother has always kept her away from boys, as from Satan in person. The girl has dreamed about them constantly since the age of thirteen but doesn't know how to talk to them.
       Despite her inexperience, she is: "all desire and pride", ready for romance and passion, desperate to fall in love. At the camp she almost immediately lets herself be swept away by a head instructor, H.; she's ready to lose her virginity, and even if he moves very fast and aggressively, she goes along with it: "she inwardly consents to losing her virginity. It is not from resignation: she wants to lose it, collaborates". It is an awkward, unsatisfying encounter; it isn't quite sex -- it's only five years later, in 1963, with one Philippe Ernaux, that her still-preserved "anatomical virginity" goes by the wayside -- but it, and its aftermath, are experiences that mark her deeply. In particular, the fallout of how others react confounds her.
       Word gets around, and the group gangs up on her; interestingly: "The girl of '58 does not take offense". She's not ashamed of what happened -- "I see nothing from that period that could be described as shame" -- but comes up against a group-think mindset that doesn't see H. as having done anything wrong (despite him already being engaged to another woman) but snickers at loose woman Annie and her feelings. The girl is baffled by the reaction -- literally uncomprehending. As she realizes, years later, the issue, both with her encounter with H. and then with the reaction of the others, was that:
Common to both was my complete inability to convince, to fully assert my point of view.
       The young Annie's attitude towards sexuality in fact seems quite healthy, but it's not the accepted one; she doesn't play the role she's expected to in those times -- and so the others, for example, see her as shame-less in the wrong sort of way.
       Annie also wants to belong -- these experiences, of engaging with boys and girls her age, behaving independently, almost adultly, are new and exciting ones for her -- and she tries to fit in:
     Because the joy of the group is more powerful than humiliation, she wants to remain with the others. I see her want to be like them so badly she resorts to imitation. She copies their language tics and expressions
       A Girl's Story is not only a story-of-its-times, a would-be memoir of a period in the author's life, but a deep engagement with revisiting the past, the present-day author struggling with how to capture her younger self from nearly six decades earlier. The writer -- Ernaux, in the present-day -- comes to the fore constantly, describing how she tried to return to and address these times. There's a great deal of Googling of names of those from that period -- though she leaves it be at that, wondering how they might remember that summer but avoiding actually finding out. She searches for records, but there is little for her to latch onto -- "There are no photos of her from that summer of 1958" -- and while she vividly recollects a great deal, the distance makes any contemporary approach difficult: this young Annie Duchesne is another, after all -- and so also:
[T]he problem I am up against is how to grasp the behavior of this girl, Annie D, and how to understand her happiness and suffering in relation to the rules and beliefs of French society half a century ago, to the norms everyone took for granted except for a small and marginal group of "progressive" society, to which neither she nor anyone at the camp belonged.
       From the beginning she makes clear how significant the events of that summer were, how much of a turning point:
     There were always references to her in my journal -- "the girl of S," "the girl of '58." For the last twenty years, I have jotted "'58" among my other book ideas. It is the perpetually missing piece, always postponed. The unquantifiable hole.
       A Girl's Story is then the attempt to fill that void -- and fascinating in how it does so. Annie D's experience is not one of easily categorized violation; Ernaux captures the full complexity of it and its aftermath -- and then the ripple-effects in the succeeding years. There are physical manifestations, such as amenorrhea -- her period stopping, for no clear medical reason, for two years -- and an eating disorder, as she succumbs: "to the saddest of all passions, the passion for food, object of an unremitting, repressed desire that can only be fulfilled through excess and shame".
       There are then other stations for Annie Duchesne as well, as she attends the École normale for schoolteachers -- obviously not the ideal academic path for her, as she: "does not excel in any of the subjects specifically related to teaching, has no interest or liking for anything but the courses in twentieth-century literature and contemporary history, which do not count in the final results". Fortunately realizing that this is: "an occupation for which she was not in the least suited", she abandons the teacher-track, spends a year as an au pair in England, and then enrolls at the University of Rouen -- finally truly on track, even if she also moves back home, commuting to school.
       Even before 1958, literature had been both her escape and determined how she understood the world:
     The most intense part of her life is the time she spends immersed in the books she has insatiably consumed ever since she learned to read. All she knows about the world she has learned from these, and from women's magazines.
       If not entirely retreating back into this, the literary -- reading, and now also writing -- become the world in which she can find herself, and a hold. Continuing to this day. The literary is also how she engages with the past, with this other self from so long ago -- whose experiences of course also shaped the present self. That it took more than half a century for her to tackle this particular time is obviously also telling, in and of itself. And she also understands about the exercise:
     Self-narrative, in bringing to light a dominant truth, which it seeks in order to ensure a continuity of being, always neglects to take account of the following: our failure to understand what we experience, at the moment we experience it; the opacity of the present, whereby every sentence and every assertion should be riddled with holes.
       Annie Ernaux is self-aware, in the best possible way -- meaning also aware of the limits of her method, and of recollection -- and A Girl's Story is yet another very impressive piece of her larger writing-project.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 April 2020

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A Girl's Story: Reviews: Annie Ernaux: Other books by Annie Ernaux under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Annie Ernaux was born in Normandy in 1940. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2022.

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© 2020-2023 the complete review

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