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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Manhattan's Babe

Frédéric Beigbeder

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To purchase Manhattan's Babe

Title: Manhattan's Babe
Author: Frédéric Beigbeder
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 352 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Manhattan's Babe - US
Manhattan's Babe - UK
Manhattan's Babe - Canada
Oona & Salinger - Canada
Oona & Salinger - France
Oona & Salinger - Deutschland
Un amore di Salinger - Italia
Oona y Salinger - España
  • French title: Oona & Salinger
  • Translated by Adam Biles
  • Illustrated by Rafael Alterio

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Our Assessment:

B : lively and fairly entertaining, if not much more

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 25/8/2014 Jérôme Dupuis
Le Figaro . 21/8/2014 Bruno Corty
El País . 22/3/2016 J.A.Maydeu
Die Welt A 7/3/2015 Tilman Krause

  From the Reviews:
  • "De ce matériau très riche, Beigbeder tire un récit fluide et bien documenté. Evidemment, il ne peut s'empêcher de "beigbedériser" le tout, pour le meilleur et pour le pire. Le meilleur, c'est quand il imagine les lettres désespérées de Salinger à Oona, que les héritiers de Chaplin n'ont jamais voulu rendre publiques. Pari osé, plutôt réussi." - Jérôme Dupuis, L'Express

  • "Tout en parlant de lui (...), il a écrit de belles et grandes scènes de guerre et d'amour, croqué les mythiques Hemingway, Capote, Chaplin tout en rendant Salinger humain et touchant. Qui dit mieux ?" - Bruno Corty, Le Figaro

  • "Pese a que la voz que narra es la de Beigbeder y a cada página se asoman su ironía, su autoconsciencia, su mitomanía y su complicidad con un lector al que se lleva de juerga, Oona y Salinger es la novela menos autobiográfica del autor, y seguramente la más enjundiosa. En realidad es su apuesta más fuerte." - Javier Aparicio Maydeu, El País

  • "(G)egen diese Präponderanz der Amis schreibt dieser hochraffinierte, witzige, anspielungsreiche, selbstreferentielle Roman an. Er ist dem konventionellen Realismus amerikanischer Prosa so turmhoch überlegen, dass man nur sagen kann: Wenn es in der Welt mit rechten Dingen zuginge, dann müsste der Leser nach Lektüre dieses Buches alle seine Hilary-Mantel-Historienschinken in die Tonne treten. (...) Wenn man das alles gelesen hat, wird man nicht nur einen genaueren Blick auf den amerikanischen Schriftsteller besitzen. Man wird auch erfahren, wie er seine früheste und vielleicht intensivste Liebeserfahrung für sein Schreiben instrumentalisierte und damit einen Blick in die Werkstatt vermutlich jedes Autors erhaschen." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt

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:

[Note: while Oona & Salinger is available in English translation -- as Manhattan's Babe (in an apparently also copiously illustrated edition) --, the only copy I've came across is Tobias Scheffel's German translation, so that's what this review is based on.]

       Manhattan's Babe -- so the unfortunate English title (wasn't that someone else ?) -- is the story of legendary figures Oona O'Neill and J.D.Salinger, who had a brief relationship in the early 1940s. Beigbeder considers the work a 'faction' -- fiction closely based on the actual facts --, making for a strange hybrid that includes quotes from stories by Salinger and the occasional letter (with considerably more made-up correspondence along with it), and, along with the story of the two famous figures, a fair amount of commentary by Beigbeder, including quite a bit about himself.
       Beigbeder acknowledges a long fascination with Salinger -- his favorite author, he says --, and even begins the book with a description of a 2007 trip he took to Salinger's hometown, though he chickened out of actually knocking on the author's door. Beigbeder also admits to having reached a point where he doesn't feel or like his age (he was born in 1965) -- or rather those of his age, as he prefers to be surrounded by the younger generation. He calls himself 'gerontophobic' -- and calls Salinger the author who 'taught us to be disgusted by aging' ("dégoûté les humains de viellir"). And no small part of the novel is about the attraction of older men to younger women: not so pronounced yet when Salinger loved Oona (he was only a few years her senior -- though still twenty-one to her fifteen when they first met), but then a recurring theme, in Oona's marriage to Charlie Chaplin (three times her age when they married), Salinger's later relationships, and a whole list of examples Beigbeder offers; he also endorses the practice.
       Teenage Oona is part of the trio that also included poor little rich girls Carol Marcus and Gloria Vanderbilt, spending their nights at the legendary Stork Club -- often with the fourth in their group, Truman Capote. Oona barely knows her father, Nobel laureate Eugene, whom she has only seen a handful of times since she was an infant, and her mother lets her pretty much do as she wishes. Stunningly beautiful -- "the most beautiful teenager in New York" -- she attracts a lot of men -- including Orson Welles -- but the slightly out of his element J.D.Salinger also makes an impression on her, and Beigbeder eventually has them in a close if still guarded relationship; they spend a great deal of time together, often even nights, but Oona clings to her virginity, for example.
       Beigbeder quotes one of Truman Capote's famous comments -- but changes who it is about: where Capote meant Babe Paley when he wrote: "Mrs. P. had only one fault: she was perfect; otherwise, she was perfect", Beigbeder pretends he meant Oona, attributing this singular perfection to her. Salinger, meanwhile, much as Beigbeder admires him, is described as having a nasty character, and being excessively ambitious. The relationship is doomed, even before Salinger leaves to fight in the war -- with Beigbeder imaging nights when Oona would simply tolerate, out of politeness, sharing a bed with Salinger, stock-still and mute.
       Almost exactly half way through the novel, they go their completely different ways. Oona moves to the West Coast and soon starts her life with Chaplin, while Salinger faces the horrors of war. Beigbeder already reminded readers several times of what was happening in Europe while Oona and her friends lightheartedly enjoyed themselves in peaceful New York; with Salinger in the thick of things -- going ashore on D-Day just the beginning of the horrors he experienced -- he then can pay more attention to the carnage (and continue to contrast it with Oona's remarkably peaceful existence in the US).
       Salinger keeps writing to Oona from abroad, but she has set off on her own path: marriage, motherhood. Harder times for her come after the war, when Chaplin becomes a reviled figure, and they are eventually driven from the US. Salinger meanwhile suffers his nervous breakdown, before returning stateside and then completing the novel that would bring him such great fame.
       Beigbeder elaborates on the basics of the characters' lives, imagining more vividly than any record has it their conversations and meetings, as well as later ones: Salinger and Hemingway, even a near death-bed meeting between Eugene O'Neill and Salinger (as her father's treatment of her is presented as weighing very heavily on Oona). Finally, Beigbeder even imagines a meeting between aged widow Oona and Salinger, forty years after they last saw each other.
       Fiction that's so closely based on fact is always a risky proposition. Beigbeder tells an entertaining enough story, with lots of glamor and big names; Salinger's continued devotion to Oona, from afar, even as she has long moved on (and isn't answering almost any of his letters) is plausibly enough rendered: abroad, in a terrible war, it's a realistic outlet for Salinger -- though more about his writings of the time (which Beigbeder does refer to, and even quotes from) and how he came to write them in these conditions would also have been interesting.
       The two main figures can plausibly be reduced to this -- but it's also all rather facile. The occasional straying from even known facts -- such as the quote attributed to Capote, about Babe rather than Oona -- muddy the exercise further, making it even harder to figure out exactly what the point of it is. It all might have been more interesting -- and successful -- if Beigbeder had brought himself to the fore more often, taking on a bigger role.
       As is, Manhattan's Babe is an entertaining enough novel about famous figures -- though it is a fiction (and a love story) that would seem utterly implausible (and very thin) if its characters had been entirely made up.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 August 2019

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Manhattan's Babe: Reviews: Frédéric Beigbeder:
  • le S.N.O.B. - le Site Non Officiel de Frédéric Beigbeder
Other books by Frédéric Beigbeder under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Frédéric Beigbeder was born in 1965.

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© 2019-2020 the complete review

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