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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Town with Acacia Trees

Mihail Sebastian

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To purchase The Town with Acacia Trees

Title: The Town with Acacia Trees
Author: Mihail Sebastian
Genre: Novel
Written: 1935 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: The Town with Acacia Trees - US
The Town with Acacia Trees - UK
The Town with Acacia Trees - Canada
La ciudad de las acacias - España
  • Romanian title: Orașul cu salcâmi
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Gabi Reigh
  • With an Afterword by Radu Ioanid

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice variation on familiar coming-of-age/first passions novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 8/5/2020 Marci Shore

  From the Reviews:
  • "The omniscient narrator predominantly adopts Adriana's point of view. Sebastian is generous to his heroine: he understands her occasional capriciousness as the self-absorption of immaturity. He is equally generous to Gelu" - Marci Shore, 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 town with acacia trees of the title is identified only as D..., a reasonably large but still provincial Romanian city, a backwater compared to cosmopolitan Bucharest. The central figure in the novel is Adriana Dunea, who enjoys a fairly privileged upbringing here -- and the occasional extended stay in Bucharest --, the story covering her late teens. It begins when she is fifteen and, as the first chapter's title -- 'First Blood' -- suggests, with her reaching physical maturity, something her surprised and at first confused reaction to suggests she wasn't prepared for yet (certainly not by her mother, who isn't even capable of giving her a good heart-to-heart once the issue has been identified: "she preferred to let things pass to avoid any difficult explanation").
       It marks more than a physical change in Adriana, as she returns to school -- the Institute of Notre Dame d'Avignon -- with quite the attitude, as she then tries to feel her way around leaving childish things behind her. Sebastian captures the girl at this age well, especially in her continuing confusion and uncertainty. She still has to figure out most things for herself, armed with little more -- about worldly ways and relationships -- than the: "knowledge gleamed from reading novels".
       A brief visit by a second cousin, Paul, stirs the first romantic -- and sexual -- feelings in her, but she can barely fathom them; she gets her first kiss but already that is more than she can process: "Neither he nor Adriana understood what had happened", and Paul quickly flees back to Bucharest.
       Close friend Cecilia has a cousin, Gelu, whom Adriana finds herself drawn to, and when he stows away a friend, Victor, in an attic for a few weeks and Adriana and Cecilia join in on the secret the quartet forms a "precarious friendship". Cecilia and Victor become a couple (a storyline that fades too quickly and almost completely from view, in one of the novel's lost threads), while Adriana and Gelu more slowly also find themselves drawn together.
       Gelu is the other major figure in the novel, and while the focus remains largely on Adriana's progress, the perspective does sometimes shift and follow the young man. When first encountered, he is drawn to a slightly older woman, Elisabeta -- a girl the other girls had always: "tried to despise, yet for whom, deep down, they all harbored a grudging respect" -- but he is barely more than a plaything for her: "No, no. It's perfectly clear -- he can't possibly imagine anything is going to happen", she insists.
       Another figure eventually comes into the picture in the form of pianist and composer Cello Viorin, who had actually lived in D... (though: "the slightly unsavoury details of his departure complicated the town's pride in their new-found celebrity" when he returns triumphantly). Adriana and her friends first learn of him not in person but through his music, picking up his piece Songs for the Fair Agnes, a piece that then continues to resound in the story, not least because of Viorin's explanation(s) for its inspiration.
       A minor storyline also has Adriana's second cousin Paul married off to her classmate Lucreţia -- an ill-fated marriage, because Lucreţia's passion was for a beloved teacher at the Institute of Notre Dame, Sister Denise (who, for a while, had also doted on Adriana). The marital situation and then difficulties make for excuses for Adriana to spend time in Bucharest, where she is also able to get closer to Viorin; when she is back in D... and Gelu then comes to study in Bucharest he, in turn, befriends Viorin and learns of the composer's interest in Adriana.
       Adriana and Gelu's relationship waxes and wanes. As her relationship with Viorin suggests, Adriana remains unsure of her wants and needs; much of this comes across, very believably, as an adolescent testing out of waters, complete with melodramatic posturing ("A week after her return to D... she had decided to kill herself. In the end, out of habit, she consented to live"). The conclusion sees Adriana decide on her future course; Sebastian cleverly here unfolds it from Gelu's perspective, the news reaching him via a letter from her, after some two months silence, its contents mostly presented in summary form, with only a short bit presented verbatim. It's a nice way of fading out, the final chapter artfully reflecting all those echoes of youthful passions that mix and overlap but that are also left behind.
       The Town with Acacia Trees offers several such transitions: Gelu's meeting with earlier flame Elisabeta and her incredibly successful husband is one eye-opener; Buţă, a free-spirited (and exam-failing) friend of Gelu's, is also an interesting secondary figure, with a predictable fate.
       Sebastian draws adolescent and early-adult fumblings with passion very well, especially Adriana's; he's surprisingly well attuned to Adriana's situation -- the discovery of her own body and longings, in a society where there is little forthright discussion or explanation of these. Adriana -- and Gelu -- have to figure these out mostly for themselves, and Sebastian captures their struggles with this well. The realistic mix of various figures drawn to each other but often only so far, or in the heat of moments or situations, makes for a story that isn't your usual simple romance-novel, but rather one that's much more convincingly true to life. With its interesting mix of characters and situations -- including the scandal around Sister Denise -- and Sebastian's confident style, The Town with Acacia Trees easily stands up as more than just a period piece (and, indeed, has a timeless sort of feel as, other than social conventions, little about it points to when it actually takes place, with Sebastian avoiding, among much else, any political-historical allusions).
       An appealing and nicely crafted (and simmering) work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 January 2020

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The Town with Acacia Trees: Reviews: Other books by Mihail Sebastian under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Romanian author Mihail Sebastian (born Iosif Hechter) lived 1907 to 1945.

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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