Last week I read two books: Crimson Frost, a Christmas novella by JP Mclean, and Adèle by Leila Slimani. No common denominators between them (fortunately!), except that they were both short reads.
For those who like Christmas stories with a supernatural touch, Crimson Frost will be a perfect choice: fast-paced, with a solid plot, interesting characters and the atmosphere of sadness and joy, loss and hope. I’m a big fan of JP McLean’s Gift Legacy, and I wrote about her excellent newest novel, Blood Mark, in my previous post, so no wonder I enjoyed this novella as well. She has the ability to make supernatural natural and fantastic believable – a rare talent. Five stars for Crimson Frost!
Adèle, on the other hand, is “literary fiction”, a critically acclaimed translation from French, that somehow managed to do just the opposite: to turn something real into the unbelievable.
I read lots and lots of classical literature in high school and in my university days. I often go back to it, re-reading my favourite authors and their works. Now I prefer popular fiction–from romances and mysteries to fantasies, general fiction and historical fiction.
I give “literary fiction” a go once in a while, but it seems that I can’t pick a satisfying piece. (“Literary fiction” is a controversial label hence the quotation marks; a vague, undefined space between established classics and genre fiction, populated with everything from most of the Nobel Prize laureates to the above-mentioned Slimani or, in the extreme representations of literary insanity, works like Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist.)
Now, Adèle. Inspired by Luis Bunuel’s 1967 masterpiece Belle de Jour (my observation) and Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (the author’s declaration), Adèle is supposedly a contemporary story of a woman in a search for herself. In the movie Belle de Jour, Severine is unable to share physical intimacy with her husband. She starts her journey of self-discovery and healing by working as a high-class prostitute during the day. It’s not without danger, of course, but depending on how you perceive Bunuel’s ambiguous ending, you might believe Severine’s therapeutic approach was successful. In any case, it’s a great movie and Catherine Deneuve was beyond beautiful as Belle de Jour. Emma Bovary’s romanticized view of life filled with passion and wealth is in a clash with her dull reality. Seeking–and finding–sensation, she’ll have several affairs, accrue a sizeable debt, and finally, kill herself, in the process destroying her husband and ruining her daughter’s future.
Adèle, a young Parisian woman, appears to be a sex addict. Her husband is a successful surgeon, with very different physical needs, or rather, the absence of them: for him, sex is a laborious task that must be endured in order to procreate. He assumes she feels the same because he really doesn’t know her, nor does he care to know her until it’s too late. In constant search for her next “fix”, Adèle lives a double life, weaving a cobweb of deceits and lies, swinging between excitement and regret, loathing herself and everyone else, causing endless pain and sorrow, awaking the worst in herself and others. She requires to be physically punished and emotionally humiliated, over and over again by her lovers; no level of indignity, disgrace or degradation is low enough for her. She doesn’t have any moral compass. I wouldn’t have a problem with that — after all, the abyss of addiction is, if not a new, then certainly an interesting topic to explore. But, there is not a hint of explanation of what caused her to become an addict. (The author states it doesn’t matter, but I, as a reader, feel something is missing.) Traumatic childhood? Adèle’s relationship with her mother was cold and complex, but not enough to warrant such a drastic outcome. On the other side, Adèle’s father was devoted to her, balancing her mother’s self-centeredness. Her childhood and youth experiences were not presented as bad enough to cause emotional damage of this magnitude. The most prominent part of Emma Bovary in Adèle is her sense of entitlement, paradoxical, given Adèle’s non-existent self esteem. Slimani wants us to believe that Adèle tries to find her confidence and female power in her sexual exploits (although not overly graphic, some of them are quite nauseous), painting her at the same time (and I think quite accurately) as a sex addict dancing on the razor’s edge and feeding an unknown, devastating hunger inside her. The ending of the novel also appears to be influenced by Belle de Jour, but clearly, Slimani isn’t Bunuel, and it left me annoyed that she tried to mimic him.
This tiny novel, this praised “literary fiction” is all over the place, a colossal mess of several irreconcilable concepts. Each one would work on its own; together they are dizzying. Unfortunately, it looks like sometimes modern novels have to include a few strange components to be declared “literary fiction” — like taking liberties with logic and common sense, unsatisfying endings and odd angles to examine human conditions. The most inaccurate and non-sensical description is in the blurb: “Suspenseful, erotic, and electrically charged, Adèle is a captivating exploration of addiction, sexuality, and one woman’s quest to feel alive.” (Emphasis in bold is mine.)
Erotic? Yeah. As much as an addiction can be.