A bestseller in France, this book is the first novel ever nominated for all five major French literary prizes.
Plot is not the point of this short novel, which makes it unlikely that it will repeat that popular success in the United States. Which is unfortunate, because this book successfully explores the emotional lives of its characters. As a nation we in the United States are addicted to the plot, to the shifts and plunges of a story. And for those in search of that adrenalin hit, this book will disappoint. But it has definite pleasures, and those linger much longer than the mere attraction of a storyline.
Start with the title: delicacy. It is a word not used much in daily life, an old-fashioned word. But appealing, intriguing, somewhat remote and even mysterious. But easy to pass over as a book title.
The gentle narrative arc of this book concerns Natalie, a beautiful woman in her twenties and thirties who hesitantly falls in love and marries Francois. He is killed in a bicycle accident. Francois in her grief buries herself in her work for the Paris division of a Swedish research firm where she navigates the relationships with her boss, Charles, and a subordinate, Marcus. And that is about it for the plot.
It is in the examination of the nuances of emotions and desire that this book excels. While the plot is thin, the intricacies of interior dialog and the great space given characters to think and react is highly unusual in current bestseller fiction. When Marcus and Natalie awkwardly stumble through their individual protective shells in search of emotional stability, the descriptions are nuanced, unusual and yet the reader understands the narrative consistency and fidelity to what we have earlier learned of these characters.
In life people don't usual move briskly from point A to B in a straight line, but in fiction the author rarely can be bothered to slow the plot sufficiently to explore the worlds of indecision and false starts that often accompany that A-B journey. This author reminds the reader that the journey itself, rather than the plot point where it ends, is the important part of life.
If you want someone to understand who you are, your essential self, would you hand that person your resume, or tell them a story? A meandering, delicate story that tells a truth about you beyond the facts of your life. This book does an excellent job of this, of just this.
Oh...and a warning. This book perfectly conveys the insidious gossiping and schoolyard bullying that can go on in an office setting, where there is limited privacy and certain workers see it as their full-time job to expose the private lives of co-workers. Natalie and Marcus are caught in this web of office gossip in a manner way too realistic for the comfort of this particular reader.
The translation is fine, but given the nuances of thought and emotions that make up the core of the book, I found certain sentences clunky, awkward and these often felt like translation deficiencies. "Charm took effect, and even progressed." "Because nothing wears you out more than living under the sensual dictates of beauty set in stone."
There are chapters with factual information alternating with the storyline of the novel. Natalie is listening to a song and the next chapter is a listing of the lyrics. Or there is a discussion of food allergies followed by a chapter on food allergies. And there are a few footnotes supposedly elucidating the text. For example when Natalie is eating soup the note states "We haven't been able to obtain any details regarding the exact nature of that soup." Both the factual chapters and footnotes read like affectations, as though the author lacked confidence in his story and needed to add these elements to add bulk and 'sophistication'. The novel would have been better without these unnecessary decorations.