The Margot Affair

Sanaë Lemoine

Published by Hogarth US/Sceptre UK

16 June/2 July 2020

336pp, hardback, $27/£16.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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The singularity of parenting – that unique arrangement a child has with one or both of its parental figures – is but one dimension of Lemoine’s cherishably Gallic debut.

Margot Louve has only known the idiosyncratic domesticity of a mother, Anouk, who is a celebrated, frequently distracted actress, and a father who is a minister in the government, who visits periodically, when he can escape from work and his other, acknowledged family. This arrangement is not so unfamiliar to the French in the light of President Mitterand’s secret lovechild whose story broke in 1994 and whose own account of living a shadowy, unacknowledged existence was later published.

Margot shares a similar undeclared relationship – with a parent and the world at large. Her experience of a father is occasional and unpredictable yet intense. The man, when available, is loving and attentive, but Margot wants more, and different – a family without guilt, a father who is more present than absent, a shared role outside of their apartment – yet the arc of the novel is partly a journey towards acceptance of what is uniquely hers about the arrangement her parents have accepted and created.

Events begin when mother and daughter are sitting at a Parisian street café one day and glimpse the tastefully low-key figure of Madame Lapierre, Margot’s father’s wife. With Margot’s inadmissibility given form, her frustrations concerning the man she loves and the inherent disappointments of her circumstances propel her towards a process of change.

Margot’s perspective is inevitably an isolated one, and her coming-of-age is pursued often in painful separation – from her parents and her best friend Juliette. She finds temporary companionship in a stylish couple, Brigitte and David, both writers, but she has yet to learn whom she can trust. This secondary storyline introduces gothic elements to the narrative, as well as a derivative dimension. Themes of violence and predation lend an undeniable chill to the book’s pages but also import notes of melodrama and predictability that jar with the fresher, insular, incremental process of Margot’s unsentimental education.

Like Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, which is acknowledged in the text, this is an evocative and compelling story of young emotions explored and exploited, set in a beguiling, class- and money-conscious French landscape. There are trips beyond Paris – to Normandy, to Provence; there are café tables galore; there are meals which, whether hasty or indulgent, are reliably palate-stimulating. All this feeds into a focus on the flesh, and in particular female bodies – restricted, commented on, flowering into youthful maturity, aging into something more solid and stolid.

Lemoine’s, then, is an evocative, female-oriented debut, a superior summer read that explores identity, sexuality and attachment during the transition to adulthood. Chic and  fluid, it offers a compelling tale, and an immersion that Francophiles in particular may relish.

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