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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Book of Proper Names

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase The Book of Proper Names

Title: The Book of Proper Names
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2002 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 171 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Book of Proper Names - US
The Book of Proper Names - UK
The Book of Proper Names - Canada
Robert des noms propres - Canada
The Book of Proper Names - India
Robert des noms propres - France
Robert des noms propres - Deutschland
Im Namen des Lexikons - Deutschland
Dizionario dei nomi propri - Italia
Diccionario de los nombres propios - España
  • French title: Robert des noms propres
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : good ideas, fine touches, but larger story not as fully developed as it should be

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Review . 2-3/2003 Patrick Erouart-Siad
Daily Telegraph . 15/5/2004 Jasper Rees
The Guardian A 29/5/2004 Kate Figes
San Francisco Chronicle A 1/8/2004 Christine Thomas
Scotland on Sunday A+ 9/5/2004 Samanatha Boyce
TLS . 6/12/2002 Michel Tournier
TLS A 20/8/2004 Lucy Dallas

  From the Reviews:
  • "There’s nothing of interest in this shabby book, really an overstuffed novella filled with meaningless dialogue." - Patrick Erouart-Siad, Boston Review

  • "We already know we are in the realm of whimsy when, in the book's funniest sequence, the heroine tries to emulate her mother and kill herself, but can't quite do it as she is in an insufficiently elated state of mind." - Jasper Rees, Daily Telegraph

  • "There is a poetic, elliptical quality to Nothomb's sparse, precise prose. She captures the crucial aspects of growing up with a light yet darkly comic touch; first crushes, fascination with death, the need for a destiny, the disillusionment with parents - it's all here. But so, too, is the troubled symbiosis between childhood and adolescence, and the acute agony for both mother and daughter when the child who was raised as a princess becomes an ugly disappointment as a teenager." - Kate Figes, The Guardian

  • "Nothomb's portrait of the freedom of childhood and the haunting confusion of adolescence is at once charming and brutal. Plectrude's life is marked by changes in body, soul, connections to friends and parents, and her place in the world, and though she may be unlike us, she struggles and suffers for what is at the core of each of our lives." - Christine Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "The novel is, in any case, shimmeringly resistant to synopsis, and the temptation to quote is overwhelming." - Samantha Boyce, Scotland on Sunday

  • "This is an extravagant novel, but one redeemed by an authentic and haunting physical reality." - Michel Tournier, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Nothomb takes the plight of the misunderstood child and adolescent very seriously and as a result the portrait is clear and convincing. She has dealt before with these themes -- anorexia, motherhood, peer pressure -- but she shows no signs of flagging; the book ends with a swift, decisive punch that leaves you shaking your head in admiration." - Lucy Dallas, 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:

       Robert des noms propres (now available in English as The Book of Proper Names) is another of Amelie Nothomb's novels that centres on a girl who is -- very much -- not like all the other children. The central character's unusual life isn't surprising, considering the burden her mother-creator places on her.
       The book begins with young Lucette, nineteen and pregnant. Even before the child is born Lucette kills the father -- for no particularly good reason, she acknowledges. It was simply that: "Il n'était pas mauvais, il était médiocre." ("He wasn't bad, he was just mediocre.") And Lucette only accepts the extraordinary -- so also for her child, which she then names Plectrude. It's suggested that that's a pretty tough name to saddle a child with, and maybe something like 'Marie' would be better, but Lucette's mind is made up:

     - Marie ça ne protège pas. Plectrude, ça protège: cette fin rude, ça sonne comme un bouclier.

     - 'Marie' won't protect her. ' Plectrude', that protects: that 'rude' ending, that sounds like a shield.
       Once Lucette has made sure that the child is properly named her work is done -- and she commits suicide.
       Plectrude is taken in by Lucette's sister, Clémence, and her husband Denis, who already have two young children. They raise Plectrude as their own, keeping her actual origins from her for a long time.
       Plectrude is a typical Nothombian infant and young child -- not bothering to speak (beyond the word: "maman") for a long time, learning to read quickly -- but not at school and only when it makes sense to her. School doesn't suit her either, but for her fourth birthday she wishes for ballet slippers, paving the path for her future. She's enrolled in ballet class and immediately shows great promise; it is also something that appeals to her greatly.
       For Nothomb childhood happiness peaks at age ten -- before the shadows of puberty approach -- and so her Plectrude finds: "Ell était au sommet de son règne" ("She was at the summit of her reign") at that age. By the age of twelve she is already all too aware of the looming "calamités de l'adolescence" ("calamities of adolescence") -- but then she's saved by another means of holding off puberty a while longer: completely embracing dance, and enrolling at the professional school affiliated with the opera (the national training school for ballet). Talented as she is, she is of course accepted. Unfortunately, the school is not a place where her dream of enjoying the sheer pleasure of dance can be fulfilled, as it is all hard, rote physical work -- a change from 21st century France to medieval China.
       Weight is, of course, a major issue among the young would-be ballerinas, and there is intense pressure to be as slim as possible. Arriving, age thirteen, at 5'1" (155 cm) she weighs 88 pounds (40 kg) -- though eventually her weight sinks to as low as 70 pounds (32 kg). The school is also an island where puberty and adulthood have been banished -- there's nary a menstruating student among the girls, not a tampon to be found in the building, as the physical strain (and, in a few cases, medication) keep the girls in their artificial, de-sexed state.
       Despite it not being the idyll she hoped for, Plectrude remains dance-obsessed: even this so arid existence can be justified by dance, "la seule transcendence" ("the only transcendent thing"). She can barely adjust to any semblance of normal life away from school, even when just visiting her family. There is additional pressure from her overindulgent pseudo-mother, Clémence, who is blind to the damage being done to the girl. (Denis, her husband, tries to point out that things aren't normal and they should perhaps be concerned, but he's just a man stuck in a Nothomb novel: weak, he always defers to his wife.)
       The dancing dream is finally shattered by the effects of the long-imposed starvation diet, as decalcification leaves the teenager's bones so brittle that it becomes medically impossible for her to continue dancing. The end of this dream is, ultimately, more devastating to Clémence than Plectrude, as the mother-figure had invested so much in the girl's success and can't accept her failure.
       Plectrude gains some weight and regains her health, and finds a different sort of dream, drawn to the theatre (and Ionesco). Learning of her real mother's actions she also decides to follow in her footsteps, and become a suicide at age nineteen (after, of course, giving birth). But things turn out a bit different for Plectrude. For one, a man comes back into her life at just the right moment, someone she knew from school and who has also suffered physically. More significantly, one final mother-creator figure comes into her life -- author Amélie Nothomb herself.
       The solution for release -- and for some future -- is then easily found: Plectrude murders Nothomb. It's a clever idea, but it doesn't wreak quite enough havoc on the book as the death of the author should

       Nothomb is very good at describing the strange world of childhood, but the span of this novel -- almost two decades -- is far more than she usually tries in her books. Not much longer than her books usually are, there is far more activity in Robert des noms propres than in her other novels. As a result she doesn't linger and embellish to the extent she usually does, and though her quirky charm is again found throughout -- and many of the small scenes are very effective -- the larger picture isn't nearly as convincing or appealing. The story jerks along too rapidly. All the more shame because the ideas behind it are clever. Ultimately, it feels like a radically cut version of a much better, larger work.

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The Book of Proper Names: 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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