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Soledad Puértolas: Burdeos (Bordeaux)

As the title tells us, this book is set primarily in Bordeaux, though why Puértolas chose to set it there is not entirely clear. The book consists of three linked stories, all concerning well-to-do bourgeois, the first two set in and around of Bordeaux, with the third set partially in Bordeaux but also in Paris, Spain, Italy and the United States. While each story focusses on one individual, the other characters and, indeed, the main three, also appear in the other stories.

The first story concerns Pauline Duvivier. She lived in a quiet neighbourhood in a two-storey house, somewhat away from the city centre. She lives on her own, having lived with her parents, both of whom are now dead. She has a cleaner, Madeleine, visiting daily, but she tends to keep out of Madeleine’s way. She seems to have a few acquaintances but no close friends.

She is used to solitude. Her mother, Agnès, died some time ago, so she lived with her father. He spent his life going from the office to the library and then chatting with his friends in the afternoon. When he retired, he spent his time reading, finally reading only Montaigne.

Her mother had a close friend, Hélène Dufour, who edited a magazine and who gave Pauline a job there but Hélène left her husband and married an American, moving to the US with him. To her credit, when Agnès was dying, Hélène came and took care of her. Hélène will feature more strongly in the second story.

One day Pauline finds Madeleine in the kitchen, with a young woman, Gracielle. Madeleine has a black eye and is bruised and Gracielle, who is from the same village as Madeleine and works for Pauline’s neighbours, the Clements, is comforting her. It seems that François, Madeleine’s husband, is a drunk and he had beaten her.

Sometime later, to her surprise, Pauline receives an invitation to tea from Florence Clement, whom she barely knows. She accepts. She learns from Florence, who will also play a role in the second story, that while the Clements were away, a friend who was checking up on the house, caught Gracielle and Claude, another servant, in M. Clement’s bed. Both were fired on the spot.

Florence admits that her marriage has its problems and, subsequent to the firing, she has received a letter from Claude asking for money in exchange for compromising letters he has in his possession. Florence would like Pauline to go and visit Gracielle, persuade her, by means of a generous donation, to hand over the letters and leave Claude. Florence stresses that she is more concerned for the welfare of Gracielle than the letters. Pauline feels that she should walk away but she does not.

The second story concerns René Dufour, son of Hélène. When he was twelve, his mother suddenly left. The town was scandalised by her behaviour, while her father does not mention her. Her photos were removed. He missed her very much but eventually adapted to the new order and way of life. The father runs a business which René is soon involved in.

René carries on his own life. He has friends, not necessarily close ones but ones he sees regularly. He has girlfriends but though there is talk of marriage in a couple of cases, it does not happen. Indeed, that is his father’s main concern, as he would like to see his son married, despite his own unhappy marriage. René later starts visiting prostitutes.

One day, when he is twenty, his mother turns up out of the blue. She had communicated with his father and his father tells him that he should go and have dinner with her at her hotel. He does but, for him, she is a complete stranger.

One woman does have an effect on him. He bumps into a schoolfriend, Henri. Henri invites him to his decidedly seedy lodgings, where is living with his wife, Bianca, and their baby son. René is even more impressed when Bianca feeds the baby and, in doing so, exposes her ample breasts. It seems that Bianca is unfaithful and Henri is at a loss as to know what to do. When Bianca subsequently asks René for a drink, he accepts.

One other woman he is attracted to is Florence Clement, whom we have already met in the first story. She has a car accident and as his is the nearest house, she comes to him for help, which he gives.

The third story concerns Lillian Skalnick, She is not French, like the other two, but American. However, she is the step-daughter of Hélène Dufour (i.e. the daughter of Hélène’s second husband’s first wife). It is not a surprise to learn that her marriage has broken down. She has decided to visit Europe.

In Paris she meets an old friend, Benjamin Harrison, and they start an affair and even meet up later in Granada. But Ben is controlling (you drink too much). In Granada she meets the Parkers, and Elizabeth Parker, who is on her third marriage, tells her All women need a husband and, let me tell you, anyone will do, at least anyone who loves you. Lilly reflects on this but does not really agree. Her relations with Ben deteriorate further after their meeting, as he is highly critical of Elizabeth.

She does go to Bordeaux but when she phones René, Hélène’s son, he is away. She does meet Michel, husband of Florence Clement, whom we have met in the previous stories.

In San Sebastián, she meets a German family, the Maags, father, mother, son and daughter. During their stay, the mother, who apparently had health problems, got worse and died. Lilly stays in touch with Friedrich, the father, and they eventually meet up in Como, where he proposes to her.

All the main characters and many of the minor ones have failed marriages/relationships or no relationships at all. All complain about their marriages. Those that are not married (and some that are) try to reach out to others some time in their life but all too often fail. Some, like Pauline, give up. Rose Fouquet, Hélène’s editor at the magazine, had had a failed marriage. Now culture offered her all the emotions that most women and men look for in marriage.

The main characters feel that that they are distant from everyone else and, while not entirely discontent in their essentially solitary lives, they are well aware that something is missing. Indeed, they are well aware what it is but cannot get close to anyone. René, for example, feels that there is an emptiness in him.

The message of this book seems to be clear: marriage is not a good thing. For women, it means that they will be controlled, patronised or simply taken for granted, with the latter happening to several of the minor characters. Doubtless, many women would agree with this assessment. For men, you need to try and find a wife who will accept these terms, knowing that many will not. Despite this, all those characters who do not find a spouse/partner do tend to get by but, all too often, feel that something is missing in their lives. Far be it for me to judge what is right and and what is not. It clearly depends on the individual but I do hope that Puértolas’ marriage was happier than those of her characters.

Publishing history

First published 1986 by Anagrama
First English translation by University of Nebraska Press in 1998
Translated by Francisca González-Arias