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Amélie Nothomb: Frappe-toi le coeur (Strike Your Heart)
The title of this novel comes from an Alfred de Musset poem, A mon ami Edouard B. (link in French), The first line of the second verse reads Ah ! frappe-toi le coeur, c’est là qu’est le génie [Strike your heart for it is there that is genius].
The story starts with Marie in 1971 but, by 15 January 1972, as she says, it is no longer her story but the story of her daughter, Diane. Marie was very pretty and also well aware that she was very pretty. She liked being pretty and looked down on those who were not. She did not so much like young men as like the attention that they paid her, as that increased her vanity. Eventually, the best-looking young man in town, Olivier, courts her. He was madly in love and she liked the fact that they were seen as the best-looking couple in town. Indeed, this made her think that she was in love. She was going to be someone. Six weeks later she realised that the someone she was going to be was a mother. She was twenty and her life was over.
Her pregnancy was grim and when Diane was finally born, she felt nothing for her. She was still very tired. She fed and changed Diane but, apart from that, paid her no attention. The baby Diane looked forward to being loved twice a day, in the morning and the evening when her father doted on her, changed her and fed her. The rest of her life was nothingness and she did not like it.
Marie eventually decided that she had to do something. Olivier, whose family owned a pharmacy, said they needed a bookkeeper and suggested that she study accountancy. She did and she loved it. Marie’s parents were very happy to look after Diane and Diane was very happy with them.
Eventually, Marie got pregnant again. One night she had a dream, a dream that Diane was dead. She rushed to Diane’s room, found she was alive and hugged her. Diane was overjoyed. Finally, love from her mother! It was the first and only time.
Diane pitied the baby who was about to be born as he or she would be lacking a mother’s love. However, when Nicolas was born Marie adored him and was very loving. Eventually, Diane worked out that it was because he was a boy. Mothers love sons more than daughters. Nevertheless, Marie went back to work a week later. When her grandfather mentioned in passing that Marie must be jealous, he was surprised to hear the two year old Diane reply that she knew. When Célia was born, Diane was sure that she would be neglected, as she was a girl. However, Marie was even more adoring with her, which completely destroyed Diane’s view of the world. She realised, at the age of five, that her childhood was over. Indeed, Marie did not go back to work for two and a half years.
For the rest of the book, we follow Diane. She lives full-time with her grandparents and, indeed, after the age of eleven, does not see her mother for many years. Eventually, she decides to study cardiology and we get a whole new story line when Diane becomes close to one of her lecturers, Olivia Aubussson. She has not been made a full professor because, in the view of Diane, and others, including Olivia herself, she is female and because she took time off to have a baby. Diane becomes close to her, pushing her to do the work needed to become a full professor, but also becomes close to her daughter, Mariel, who like Diane, herself, has been neglected by her mother.
This book is a damning indictment of mothers. Olivia puts her career ahead of her daughter though, as she points out, women are generally judged far more harshly for doing so than men (her husband is a mathematics genius who seems to be on the autistic spectrum), while Marie treats all her three children very differently. Both mothers will pay a bitter price for their behaviour.
Both the spoilt and neglected daughters turn out to be flawed adults, in different ways, while the mothers are damned and the fathers somewhat kept to the side. Sexism undoubtedly comes into it as most of the women are subjected to it to some degree or other but Nothomb seems to be saying that women should be able to surmount sexism with their own efforts (as she has done in her own career).
Nothomb’s novels often seem to be autobiographical though this interview (link in French) implies that this novel is not autobiographical, though, like Diane, Nothomb is unmarried and childless, though she is close to her sister.
This is something of a new approach for Nothomb as it is fairly harrowing by her standards, with none of the characters ending up happy and quite a few in a miserable situation by the end. Nevertheless, it is a novel well worth reading and will, no doubt, soon appear in English.
First published in 2017 by Albin Michel
First English publication in 2018 by Europa Editions