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Marie Desplechin: Sans moi (Sans moi)

The unnamed narrator of this novel is a divorced woman with two children, Thomas and Suzanne. She works as a freelance writer. As she needs help with the children while she is working (which involves a certain amount of travel), she has engaged Olivia to be the babysitter. Olivia was recommended by a friend but Olivia has a history. At the beginning of the novel, it is a bit over a month since Olivia arrived. The narrator suspects that Olivia is doing drugs, though Olivia tells her that she has given up. The narrator has her doubts. But, gradually, the narrator learns about Olivia’s past. It seems that Olivia was a foster child, her parents having died when she was young. She was subject to sexual abuse as a foster child. (Her sister or, rather, her half-sister, Agnès, who was brought up by different foster parents, has a husband who sexually abuses his daughter.) Though she does seem to have held a proper job (though her description of it varies during the course of the book), she has no baccalauréat qualifications. More of a concern, she does seem to have strange associates who either phone or, even occasionally, call at the door. She has mysterious conversations with them, all the time stating that they are not in any way connected with the drug trade. Moreover, initially at least, she refuses to go out much, fearing, as she says, that she will bump into people she does not want to meet. This later changes. In short, this has the hallmarks of being a novel where a liberal, modern woman takes in a maybe former/maybe current drug user and finds that she still is a drug user and that this is going to cause a problem. Alternatively, it could be a liberal, modern woman helps a maybe former/maybe current drug user get off drugs. Fortunately, Desplechin is far too clever to fall into either of those traps and this novel is quite a bit different from what we might have expected.

The narrator feels very maternal towards Olivia – far more than she seems to toward her own children. She helps her, advises her, worries about her, particularly when she, finally, starts going out at night. As she gradually learns about Olivia’s past, both her recent past and her childhood, she naturally becomes concerned and maternal. Her own two children seem to manage quite well, dealing with their mother’s absences, school, the visits from their father (the narrator remains on good terms with her ex) and her mother’s affairs (Thomas even advises her on one man). Olivia often (though not always) seeks help and comfort from the narrator, seeing in her the mother she herself never had. But gradually, slowly, the relationship changes. The narrator has her own problems. While she is focused on Olivia and her life story, she is also worried about a few things. She has a few affairs, starting with Thierry, whom she also calls the expert, as it is he who advises her on Olivia. While the men are not particularly bad men, they are clearly far from perfect, often being demanding and not very romantic, taking her for granted. Indeed, she seems to get on better with Jean-Patrick, her ex-husband. She also has problems with her job, with criticisms of her writing, and issues about getting paid. She also has financial worries, as a result. Her parents are both alive and there is certainly some contact but she does not feel close to them and this worries her. In short, her life is far from perfect and far from happy.

Soon, the roles start to being reversed, as it is Olivia who seems to be more the grown-up than the narrator, looking after her employer and helping her deal with some of the issues. This is done very cleverly as it is very gradual and the opposite side of the relationship still remains there. At the same time, as the narrator’s situation gets worse – job, money, romance – Olivia starts to pull herself together aiming towards a career and a life of her own. It is very skillfully told by Desplechin, not least for its subtlety. Interestingly there is a film of this book where Olivia is called Lise and the narrator is given the name Marie, presumably after the author. Why?

Publishing history

First published in French 1998 by Editions de l’Olivier
First English translation 2001 by Granta/St. Martin’s Press