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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Pétronille

Title: Pétronille
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 122 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Pétronille - US
Pétronille - UK
Pétronille - Canada
Pétronille - Canada (French)
Pétronille - India
Pétronille - France
Die Kunst, Champagner zu trinken - Deutschland
Pétronille - Italia
Pétronille - España
  • French title: Pétronille
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B : a bit meandering and loose, but nicely finished off

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 4/9/2014 Mohammed Aissaoui
The Guardian . 27/11/2015 Victoria Segal
Publishers Weekly . 24/8/2015 .
TLS . 18/5/2016 Francesca Rhydderch

  From the Reviews:
  • "En vérité, ce roman, en plus d'être drôle, est une ode à l'amitié (et au champagne, bien sûr). (...) Rarement un écrivain à succès a brossé avec autant d'empathie et d'admiration le portrait d'un écrivain moins connu. (...) Oui, l'Amélie Nothomb 2014 est un excellent cru." - Mohammed Aissaoui, Le Figaro

  • "What saves this slight work from being toxically winsome, however, are the flashes of vicious comedy (...) and the sudden turbulent descent towards an ending that demands a rereading. Another one of Nothomb’s tricks, maybe, but one she executes brilliantly." - Victoria Segal, The Guardian

  • "(D)ripping with champagne and mischief. (...) Nothomb’s novel is full of energy." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The abrupt, episodic narrative is confidently executed, but interludes featuring Vivienne Westwood and an unsuccessful skiing holiday verge on cartoonish instalments. Nevertheless, Nothomb (the author, not the author-character) succeeds in making of Pétronille an increasingly elusive, dark presence, and it is Pétronille rather than Amélie who becomes the most compelling half of this literary couple." - Francesca Rhydderch, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Pétronille is narrated by an author matching Amélie Nothomb in all the essentials -- name, age, output -- and fits, more or less, in with the rest of Nothomb's autobiographical fiction (about every other novel). The novel covers almost two decades -- "My story begins in late 1997", and it continues to the near present-day --, glancingly covering various stations of her career, beginning with the novelist moving to Paris, age thirty.
       What appears to be the premise of the novel is almost frivolous, even by Nothombian standards: author Amélie is casting about for a drinking-buddy. Of course, not just any drinking-buddy will do: first of all, the drink of choice has to be champagne -- Amélie will consume other alcoholic beverages, but she has a very soft spot for fine champagne -- and she's also looking for a certain je ne sais quoi ..... Of course, she'll know it when she sees it -- and she soon does, in the form of Pétronille Fanto, a young fan who had sent her some fan letters over the last few months.
       Pétronille isn't what Amélie had expected when she sees her in person for the first time: the letters sounded like they were from someone: "who was approaching old age", but Pétronille is a just twenty-two-year-old woman -- who looks like a fifteen-year-old boy. They do go out drinking together, but it's a one-time thing for the time being, with Pétronille only resurfacing in Amélie's life a few years later, when her own first book comes out, in 2001. [Pétronille is, in fact, based on real-life author Stéphanie Hochet.]
       The relationship is on again, off again, Pétronille the sort of occasional acquaintance with whom one is willing to do outlandish things on the spur of the moment -- often helped by the consumption of copious amounts of champagne. Amélie also has her own adventures, including agreeing to go to London and write a profile of Dame Vivienne Westwood -- whom she winds up describing as: "an aging punkette disguised as Queen Elizabeth"; it was not an encounter that went well -- but immediately after the catastrophe she calls on Pétronille, who is happy to join her and take her mind off the disastrous interview.
       While not at the same pace as Nothomb, Pétronille also keeps publishing new books, establishing herself as a writer too -- although not earning very much at it. Eventually, Pétronille feels she has to flee Paris, worried about being: "infected by the filthy mannerisms of the literati". Amélie counters:

     "But you can avoid that. Look at me. I haven't got them."
     "You're not normal. It's something I need to do, really. I don't want to go stale."
     "You, go stale ? That's impossible."
     "I just turned thirty."
     You would never have known. She hardly seemed a day older than when we first met and I thought she was fifteen. She looked seventeen.
       It's a revealing exchange, from Pétronille's easy certainty about the fact that Amélie isn't 'normal', to the way Amélie sees the younger author -- seeing her as so much younger, and correspondingly also not truly adult (except in her writing, which is very mature), one of Nothomb's many obsessions.
       Throughout, Nothomb portrays herself as an off-beat innocent; typically, when she goes to Venice for a book-signing:
I arrived right in the middle of the Carnival. People in the street congratulated me on my disguise; I was simply wearing my work clothes.
       Pétronille is a somewhat darker, more impulsive alternate version of Amélie. Amélie observes that: "Pétronille is the feminine for Petronius", and while the leap she makes is: "As in Petronius Arbiter -- you are a little arbiter of elegance", there's clearly a bit of Petronius-like decadence to her too. She's also more adventurous: while Amélie hadn't even set foot in England until 2001 (her far-flung travels being mostly the result of being a kid dragged from country to country by her diplomat-family), Pétronille wanders off across the Sahara.
       In Pétronille's absence Amélie even readily finds a substitute drinking-buddy -- though she doesn't have much to say about this Nathanaëlle (yet another feminized masculine name ...), beyond noting her reliability. Amélie does become a surrogate for Pétronille in her absence, trying to place the manuscript she had left behind -- eventually successfully -- a blurring of at least parts of their identity that is then also mirrored in the novel's final turn.
       Late on, it is Pétronille who receives a fan-letter -- from no one less than The Ogre-author Jacques Chessex -- a letter Amélie finds revealing. As she comes to admit:
When I spend time with you, I feel as if I am being devoured.
       Part of the game of Pétronille is that the Amélie doesn't see Pétronille that often; Pétronille -- subtly dominating, occasionally demanding, but also capricious and flighty -- is only an occasional presence in her life. There is no obvious stalking here, no pushy attempts at usurpation; the devouring is so subtle that you barely see it -- until it's done.
       As usual, Nothomb upends expectations in the conclusion of what is until then a fairly harmless-seeming story of some odd little adventures, all related with her typical deadpan humor. The final twist makes something quite different out of the whole tale, and suggests how much more there has been to it all along. That works, though the novel as a whole perhaps doesn't do quite enough up to that final point in preparing for it.
       Deceptively lighthearted, almost frivolous, much of the way, Pétronille easily and enjoyably fulfills most Nothomb-fans' expectations.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2015

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Pétronille: Reviews: Amelie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

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