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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Pretty Things

Virginie Despentes

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To purchase Pretty Things

Title: Pretty Things
Author: Virginie Despentes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 217 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Pretty Things - US
Pretty Things - UK
Pretty Things - Canada
Les jolies choses - Canada
Pretty Things - India
Les jolies choses - France
Pauline und Claudine - Deutschland
  • French title: Les jolies choses
  • Translated by Emma Ramadan
  • Pretty Things was made into a film in 2001, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner and starring Marion Cotillard

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Our Assessment:

B : entertaining if somewhat superficial wild identity-tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 17/9/1998 Frédéric Beigbeder
Die Welt . 24/12/2009 Hendrik Werner

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wer drastische Halbwelt-Schilderungen und plastische Sex- und Drogenszenen mag, wird begeistert sein." - Hendrik Werner, 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:

       While only one of the Leusmaurt sisters truly functions as the protagonist in Pretty Things, the twenty-five-year-old twins Claudine and Pauline are both significant presences and identities throughout the novel. They have long not been close, and have very different personalities -- shaped also by their abusive father who, throughout their childhood, strongly favored one twin and constantly belittled the other, though not consistently: for a long time Pauline was the golden child and then, after an absence of several years, the father returned to the household and switched his partiality completely to Claudine.
       In adulthood, Pauline stays put back home, while Claudine fled for the big city -- Paris -- more or less as soon as she could. She's made for urban life -- and the urban scene -- but while Claudine has the attitude, she doesn't have the talent for the career she craves -- on public display as a singer. Pauline, on the other hand, has a great voice; as Nicolas, Claudine's amateur manager and friend, notes:

I really like her voice, we can make a lot of pretty things with it.
       That's the plan: since the twins are identical, Nicolas and Claudine convince Pauline to come to Paris for a one-night stand as Claudine's singing stand-in -- which they hope is enough to land that record contract.
       Though they are identical twins, Pauline and Claudine are very distinguishable lookalikes. They're completely different characters, and they present themselves completely differently, the attention-seeking Claudine going for the loud, garish look, complete with sexy outfits, while Pauline can't even be bothered to shave her legs (which are never on display anyway). It's completely ingrained into Pauline:
The usual drill: be as far as possible from Claudine, opposite, different.
       Indeed, the two sisters have each made something so different of themselves that Nicolas barely recognizes Pauline when he first encounters her.
       Circumstances and opportunity force Pauline to inhabit Claudine's role longer than the initial one-off plan. Despite her disgust at Claudine's lifestyle, there's a potential pot of gold in it, and Pauline finds that hard to resist. There's a man in her life -- Sébastien, the one boyfriend Claudine didn't get her hands on and turn when they were younger -- whom she is completely devoted to, but he's in prison for a spell, and she sees how a good load of cash would simplify their getting their lives on track when he gets out.
       At first, Pauline just plans to do just enough to get a fat advance -- and then hightail it with that -- but eventually she goes all in, prepared to go through with actually making an album and really playing Claudine for all the crowds. Pretty Things is a four-part novel, divided by season, and covers more or less a year, from spring to winter, of this masquerade.
       Playing at being Claudine, inhabiting her persona, is eye-opening for Pauline, giving her a new and different understanding of what it means to be a woman -- especially a woman on display. Claudine is fully immersed in the drug- and sex-scene, living fast and loose; Pauline never did anything of the sort and has some qualms about getting up to speed. She adopts a variation on Claudine's persona -- embracing an attitude of off-putting arrogance (and avoiding answering the phone) to keep most people at a distance -- but also comes to play the part more fully, going through Claudine's paces where necessary. She's in for a few surprises, too, like when Sébastien gets out of jail and comes back to her, in her new guise.
       Pauline adapts -- grudgingly, much of the time, but nevertheless exploring what it means to be a woman like Claudine (or who presents herself like Claudine). Even as herself, Claudine is a projection -- "Each man sees his Claudine" --; when Pauline plays her it just adds another layer to that projection. From teen-age on, Claudine had focused on a narrow pleasure: "she abandoned all activity not directly related to seducing boys" -- and she was always very good at it, but while Pauline finds she can also more or less manage it ("all it took was presentation for a man to find you desirable"), she's more ambivalent about this shallow power over men, who see what they want to see in women and are content to role-play too.
       Confronting this reality, of a world that's not as she imagined it, or that functions as she would like, wears on lie-living Pauline -- to the extent that at one point she blurts out:
I've had enough of people telling me the truth, to be blunt, I'd rather people lie.
       Much of Despentes' roller-coaster identity-story is engaging enough, as Pauline pretends to be her sister and tries to hit the big time, or at least cash in (in an industry full of role playing and fakeness). Nicolas goes along with it, though he could have bailed early on -- but just as for Pauline, it's too tempting, the potential too intriguing:
It's like when someone starts doing coke: convinced that he's in control, that it won't get out of hand. He does it under the pretext of lame excuses: I'll let her think I'm going to do it, but I'll convince her to stop this charade, I'll reason with her. He does it while convincing himself that he's not doing it.
       But everyone is complicit here, all of society is a charade, and they're just swept up in their small part of it -- which Despentes captures well.
       Despentes' fundamental position is, as she has Pauline realize:
She thought you either had femininity or you didn't; she didn't know it could be manufactured.
       Men function as shallow creatures, swayed by an almost entirely artificial -- made-up, with lot of make-up -- conception of women (as not much more than sex objects); Nicolas is something of an exception, but also notable in his failures to help Claudine/Pauline achieve their larger ambitions (in not acting like all the other men do he fails in their world). Claudine sees and seizes the potential -- though admittedly it ultimately only gets her so far -- while Pauline tries to follow suit, albeit while much more self-aware. It's not quite cartoonish, but the depiction is rather simplistic, especially in Despentes' embrace of extremes: beginning with the girls' ridiculously horrible father, Despentes relies too much on quick reductions to black and white.
       Despentes does well with her raw, loud, in your face approach, but it also limits the overall effect, as Pretty Things remains more surface than depth.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 September 2018

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Pretty Things: Reviews: Pretty Things - the film: Other books by Virginie Despentes under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Virginie Despentes was born in 1969.

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