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Catherine Cusset: Un brillant avenir [A Brilliant Future]
The Romanian heroine of this novel has three surnames and two first names during the course of the novel. She starts as Elena Cosma. Her mother – who may not have been her mother – died when Elena was very young (there was no father in the picture) and she is taken in and then adopted by her mother’s sister and her husband, acquiring their name of Timerescu. It is with this name that she grows up. After the problems of the war in Romania, Elena settles down with her adoptive parents, becoming hard-working and responsible. As Cusset tell the story in chapters for a specific year (occasionally two successive years) and does not tell them chronologically, we have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen to Elena during her life. She becomes a nuclear physicist but remains an obedient daughter, paying lip service to the communist ideal but does not have her adoptive parents’ fervour for the cause.
Everything changes when she meets Jacob. Jacob is Jewish. His family had left for Israel and he had stayed to finish his studies. By the time he was ready to depart, it was no longer possible to leave for Israel, so he has stayed in Romania. He and Elena start a relationship but trouble occurs when she introduces him to her adoptive parents. We have already learned that Romania in general and Elena’s parents in particular are anti-Semitic so when she introduces Jacob to them, they are horrified. They hope that she will break up the relationship but, when she does not, they order her to do so (in front of Jacob) and she obeys. However, some time later, she bumps into him. They restart their relationship, without telling her parents. Meanwhile he has a chance to leave for Israel and applies (thereby losing his job). However, when the relationship with Elena seems to be continuing, he changes his mind and has to find another job, which he does with difficulty. Meanwhile, they decide to get married and tell Elena’s parents, which produces the expected reaction and relations are almost broken off. They get married and have a son – Alexandru – and, once again, get an opportunity to go to Israel, hoping to use it was as stepping stone to the USA. As the novel starts with their life in the USA, we know they make it.
Much of the novel is set in the USA. We follow Helen Tibb (as she is now called) and Jacob with their problems in the USA. These include fitting in, learning the language, Jacob getting old and, in particular, their relationship with their daughter-in-law. Alexandru has two affairs as a young man which don’t work out. The third is with Marie, a young French woman, who has come to live and work in the USA. Jacob and Helen do not take to her. It is not entirely clear why not. Their stated reason is that, as she is French, she is bound to want to return to France and to take Alex with her. Their concerns about this are not (at least nominally) losing their son but the fact that, as he is not fluent in French, he will find difficulty fitting in a and finding a job, as the French are very snobbish about people who do not speak perfect French. Is this the real reason? Or is it that Cusset generally feels that (Romanian-)Americans are likely to be inherently prejudiced against the French? Or that she herself, as a Frenchwoman married to a US national and living in the USA, has experienced similar prejudice from her parents-in-law? Or is it just an interesting plot contrivance, to make the point (which is made) that Helen and Jacob, given the anti-Semitism they experienced from Helen’s parents, are being hypocritical showing similar prejudice to their son’s French wife (with, perhaps, the rider, that anti-French sentiment is almost as common in the US as anti-Semitism, particularly post-Iraq War)? No clear answer is given but much of the book is devoted to this issue, with Helen and Jacob going from being very much against their daughter-in-laws to being very fond of her and then reverting to opposition.
Whatever the answer to the above questions, Cusset tells a complex story of a woman who lives in pre-Communist Romania, Communist Romania, Israel (with nary a mention of the Palestinians, apart from the threat of terrorist attacks) and late twentieth/early twenty-first century USA. Her problems, her relationships and struggles are very well told, with Cusset giving us detailed portrayals of several of the main characters and their interactions. Is it a life well-lived? That depends on your point of view but it is a life well told.
First published in French 2008 by Gallimard