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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Bonjour Tristesse

Françoise Sagan

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To purchase Bonjour Tristesse

Title: Bonjour Tristesse
Author: Françoise Sagan
Genre: Novel
Written: 1954 (Eng. 1955)
Length: 132 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Bonjour Tristesse - US
Bonjour Tristesse - UK
Bonjour Tristesse - Canada
Bonjour tristesse - Canada
Bonjour Tristesse - India
Bonjour tristesse - France
Bonjour tristesse - Deutschland
Bonjour tristesse - Italia
Buenos dias tristeza - España
DVD Bonjour Tristesse - US
Bonjour Tristesse - UK
  • French title: Bonjour tristesse
  • Translated by Irene Ash
  • Bonjour Tristesse was made into a film in 1958, directed by Otto Preminger and starring David Niven, Deborah Kerr, and Jean Seberg

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Our Assessment:

B+ : reasonably good account of (late-)teenage confusion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 5/3/1955 Gilbert Millstein
The NY Times Book Rev. . 27/2/1955 Marcel Arland
TLS . 27/5/1955 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mlle. Françoise Sagan unquestionably possesses a precocious insight into emotional entanglements, and she writes clearly and straight forward, if without any distinguishing merit of style. Yet even so her story, the situation she describes in it and the manner in which she does so, are only at one remove from the more banal form of romantic novelette." - 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:

       The narrator of Bonjour Tristesse is Cécile, a semi-precocious seventeen-year-old. Mom is out of the picture -- and for Cécile was never in it, a fact she introduces by explaining her mother's absence not in any relation to her but rather by noting: "My father was forty, and had been a widower for fifteen years". After being educated at a convent school, Cécile has now been living with her rather dissolute Dad, Raymond, in Paris for the past two years. She gets to play adult and accompany Dad to the parties he goes to, and merely toys with boys her own age: "I did not care for young people". Meanwhile, she has also failed her school exams.
       The story she recounts is of the summer vacation they spend on the Côte d'Azur. Her frivolous Dad brings along his (much younger) mistress du jour, Elsa, while Cécile soon encounters a student, Cyril, whom she finds herself attracted to.
       Cécile is, to some degrees, self-aware, able to diagnose, for example, that her father's attitudes towards his lovers rubbed off on her:

The result, however, was that I adopted a cynical attitude toward love which, considering my age and experience, should have meant happiness rather than mere sensation.
       Matters are complicated when an old friend of Cécile's mother, Anne Larsen, comes to stay with them. A forty-two-year-old divorcée, she was never particularly close to Cécile's father, but once she arrives she sets about establishing herself as the queen bee in the household, wresting Raymond from Elsa and becoming the maternal figure that Cécile has always lacked. She manages quite easily: soon enough Elsa is out of the picture and Anne and Raymond are engaged -- and Anne is voicing her disapproval of Cécile's careless relationship with Cyril and insists she apply herself more to her studies. Cécile is at a loss:
     Yes, it was this I held against Anne: she kept me from liking myself. I, who was naturally meant for happiness and gaiety, had been forced into self-criticism and a guilty conscience. Unaccustomed to introspection, I was completely lost. And what good did she do me ?
       Yet Cécile is torn back and forth, drawn to the stability of a traditional family that Anne's continued presence promises while also being tempted by love and sex and simple frivolity.
       She notes:
My love of pleasure seems to be the only consistent side of my character. Is it because I have not read enough ? In Paris there was no time for reading; after lectures my boy friends hurried me off to the movies.
       Here, now, forced to study, she finally gets around to some reading, but not to best effect: she latches onto some sentences from Bergson and begins to hatch a plan. It eventually involves Elsa and Cyril pretending to be in love, arousing the jealousy of Raymond, who -- Cécile knows -- will not be able to resist showing everyone who is the man.
       Cécile remains torn, drawn to what Anne offers even as she puts her plan into practice:
I longed for her to ask me: "Well, what is the matter ?" and to ply me with questions, force me to tell her everything. Then I would be won over and she could do anything she liked with me, and I should no longer be in torment. She looked at me attentively. I could see the deep blue of her eyes darken with concentration and reproach. Then I understood it would never occur to her ply me with questions and so deliver me from myself, because even if the thought had entered her head, her code of behavior would have forbidden it.
       The plan is, of course, all too successful. For a while after its smashing success Cécile is left with remorse and a bit of guilt, doing penance with her father. Raymond melodramatically announces: "Now we have only each other. We are alone and unhappy" -- but that doesn't last: "Life began to take its old course, as it was bound to" and they enjoy the same sort of happiness they always had -- i.e. a fairly empty one, but at least in the intimate and other company of members of the opposite sex.
       But, of course, there's a bit more of a hangover from these events, with Cécile also indulging in her own bit of would-be cathartic melodrama. As the book's closing lines have it:
Something rises in me that I call to by name, with closed eyes. Bonjour, tristesse !
       This rather simple teenage story is largely redeemed by Cécile's self-awareness, which is more acute than what one usually finds in narrators her age. She may not have practiced much introspection, but she understands -- and explains (without explaining too much ...) -- what's behind her own motives and actions. Both her love-life -- one of curiosity more than passion -- and her complex relationship with Anne, the mother she wants, but who she also wants to escape from -- are convincingly presented, even if much else in the story (including frivolous Dad) is fairly silly.
       Short and quick, Bonjour Tristesse is a decent enough read of late-teenage confusion, and it holds up quite well. Sagan's writing is an appealing mix of naïve and self-indulgent, without waxing excessively poetic, and the pacing of the story is good: for this sort of thing, it's not bad at all.
       [Note: The American paperback comes with an Introduction by Diane Johnson. She apparently assumes readers are familiar with the film or the book, as she notes that: "From today's perspective, the ending is foreshadowed with a clarity that is almost clumsy" -- and proceeds to explain why. Johnson may be correct; nevertheless, by pointing this out (and then explaining so much that even if the foreshadowing were not clumsy the ending is now completely clear) she gives far too much away to the uninitiated. That's unacceptable in an Introduction. ]

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 December 2009

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Bonjour Tristesse: Reviews: Bonjour Tristesse - the film: Françoise Sagan: Other books by Françoise Sagan under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Françoise Sagan lived 1935 to 2004.

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