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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

They Say Sarah
(All About Sarah)

Pauline Delabroy-Allard

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To purchase They Say Sarah

Title: They Say Sarah
Author: Pauline Delabroy-Allard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 165 pages
Original in: French
Availability: They Say Sarah - US
All About Sarah - UK
They Say Sarah - Canada
Ça raconte Sarah - Canada
Ça raconte Sarah - France
Es ist Sarah - Deutschland
È la storia di Sarah - Italia
Voy a hablar de Sarah - España
  • French title: Ça raconte Sarah
  • US title: They Say Sarah
  • US title: All About Sarah
  • Translated by Adriana Hunter

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Our Assessment:

B : all passion and fervor, for better and worse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 20/8/2018 Estelle Lenartowicz
Le Figaro . 6/9/2018 Alexandre Fillon
The Guardian . 9/4/2020 Lara Feigel
Le Monde . 6/9/2018 Jean Birnbaum
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/6/2020 Sarah Gerard
The Observer . 9/3/2020 John Self
Le Temps . 7/9/2018 Julien Burri
Die Welt . 17/8/2019 Hannah Lühmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "C'est presque moins un roman qu'un éclatant poème que propose Pauline Delabroy-Allard dans cette série de courtes phrases compressées les unes contre les autres comme les pulsations d'un coeur qui bat à toute vitesse." - Estelle Lenartowicz, L'Express

  • "It's a brief, intense read. There is no world beyond the physiological experiences of the lovers. (...) Much about the tone of the novel reminded me of Leïla Slimani's work. As with Slimani, there's a combination of breathless excitement and flatness: as though Samuel Richardson has been crossed with Albert Camus. (...) The best parts of the book are where the narrator goes deeper into inhabiting her own craziness in Sarah's absence." - Lara Feigel, The Guardian

  • "The hyperbolic emotion of this novel sometimes tips into cliché, but Delabroy-Allard insists on holding space for an unfiltered expression of pain. (...) Hunter's translation highlights the inertia and cycling of the absolutist thought patterns of love, with simple language that moves out of the way of its subject. This poetic and mystifying debut draws blood." - Sarah Gerard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Here's a novelty: a book about love as utter abandonment of the self, love as capitulation, love as not only obsession but possession, which manages not to be overwrought. (...) The persuasive translation by Adriana Hunter does occasionally let an awkward word poke through its straightforward language. (...) But these don't diminish the pleasures of a book that reads at times -- this is high praise -- like a new iteration of Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body (absorbing passion, illness, separation) and that moves impressively from the chaos and noise of love, to silence and solitude, like a spun coin settling." - John Self, The Observer

  • "Lire Ça raconte Sarah, premier roman de Pauline Delabroy-Allard, 30 ans, c’est se laisser entraîner par les phrases, leur rapidité, leur emphase. L’équivalent, dans le domaine des transports amoureux, d’un avion supersonique. (...) Plus retenu, plus court, le livre n’aurait pas été moins intense, au contraire. Mais Sarah, présente ou absente, restera toujours démesurée. Vivante." - Julien Burri, Le Temps

  • "Die in Paris spielende Liebesgeschichte zwischen zwei Frauen ist wirklich ein Wunderwerk von einem Roman, die Sprache ist beeindruckend, die Erzählweise genial. Es ist Sarah ist wie ein glucksender Strudel (.....) Dieses Porträt einer Amour fou ist nichts weiter als die Beschwörung eines fast schon dekadenten Leidens, dessen Ursache nicht so recht fühlbar wird." - Hannah Lühmann, 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:

       Published as They Say Sarah in the US, the UK edition of Pauline Delabroy-Allard's novel is All About Sarah. In some ways, it's more fitting: "All about Sarah" becomes a repeated refrain in the novel -- as in one chapter that reads, in its entirety:

It's all about that, it's all about Sarah the unknown woman. Sarah the honorable maiden, Sarah the prudent lady, Sarah the extravagant woman, Sarah the bizarre woman. Sarah the lone woman.
       Yet They Say Sarah is more a novel of obsession than simply about this Sarah. For one, Sarah is both the object of obsession as well as obsessive herself: the obsession is mutual. For another, the people involved don't really rise above being objects of desire -- abstractions, almost. The personal, beyond the passion, hardly registers in the narrator's account -- beginning with her own name.
       The narrator is a young woman just starting out as a schoolteacher. The man in her life abruptly left her -- "overnight, and I mean literally overnight" -- and while he was soon replaced by: "a new boy in my life, a Bulgarian boy", this follow-up is barely even evanescence incarnate, out of sight and mind (the narrator's as well as the reader's) practically as soon as he's been mentioned. The narrator has a young daughter, but she too barely even rates as incidental: generally referred to (and, implicitly, dismissed as) simply 'the child', she's the occasional prop, but readily placed or kept out of the way when necessary. Some acquaintances are introduced by name, but on the whole the figures, including the central ones, remain loose outlines, types more than fully fleshed-out characters.
       Not that Sarah and the narrator aren't presented as full-blooded -- but they aren't presented as much more than that. They Say Sarah is a breathless account, almost all passion, heat, and desperation. The first of the two parts of the novel covers eighty-two chapters, squeezed into fewer pages than that. It chronicles a new friendship that evolves with deceptive ease into a love-affair: "Sarah settles in, settles into my life, calmly, in no rush". Sarah is a violinist, and often travels throughout Europe (and eventually also to Japan); she is, in general, a flighty soul: early on already there's a scene where:
She's never ready. She says she can't choose, it's a problem, in life. She wants everything and nothing.
       Eventually, unsurprisingly, this will become a bit much to take for the narrator:
She doesn't understand that I'm exhausted by this life she's offering me, this life that goes far too quickly but to which she won't completely commit, exhausted by her instability, her uncertainty, her abandoning me and her tantrums, exhausted by her princessy whims.
       The danger of describing such an affair is, of course, that the reader's patience will wear thin, but in keeping things moving, and keeping things fairly short, Delabroy-Allard mostly avoids that; They Say Sarah is somewhat exhausting in its breathlessness, but mostly avoids becoming tiresome. The extremes -- and this is a book that seems composed almost entirely of extremes, with just the briefest of lulls -- can be wearing, but there are enough variations on the theme that things keep moving, in various directions.
       The relationship doesn't exactly flame out, at least not in the way one might expect. An initial break finds the narrator torn: "She's exhausting, but I'm dying without her"; the second part of the novel finds her having to deal with a complete rupture -- and if she had trouble coming to grips with Sarah and her primal feelings for her while they were a couple that's almost nothing compared to what happens when Sarah is all absence.
       The narrator flees abroad, to a friend's in Milan and then to Trieste. 'The child' is left behind -- "I'm going to have to leave her. I'm going to go. Without her. As far away as possible" -- but the narrator's attempted escape from all ties and reminders doesn't get her very far. If anything, physical distance only leaves her flailing even more help- and hope-lessly about. Her obsessive passion continues to drown out almost anything else; she is, and remains, a wreck.
       Delabroy-Allard goes all-in with obsession in this tale of mutual passion. She does this quite well, as far as it goes -- but of course this sort of thing can only go so far. There's practically no substance to the characters themselves - - they're all white-glow heat rather than actual flesh and personality -- which makes for an odd disconnect: the main appeal of They Say Sarah boils down to its language and attempt to capture a state of mind, rather than the mind and anything beyond that itself. Pitched at extremes, there is some appeal to the sheer intensity of Delabroy-Allard's account -- though the language occasionally veers off course too (the narrator: "so drunk that my teeth are black from wine" seems ... hard to picture, and extremely unlikely).
       A whirlwind, effervescent fiction, They Say Sarah is all surface heat, dissipating far too easily as soon as it is finished and put away, a fine performance on the page but not making much of an impression beyond it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 1 July 2020

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They Say Sarah: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Pauline Delabroy-Allard was born in 1988.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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