It's hard to believe, now, that this book scandalised 1950s France. Seventeen year old Cécile, and her father Raymond epitomise the Beautiful People of the French Riviera: fun-loving and decadent, Raymond loves fast cars and attractive women and has taught his daughter to emulate his hedonistic lifestyle. This she does with an innocence impossible after the 1960s, stating of the one boy with whom she even flirts during the course of the book, "if Cyril had not been so fond of me I would have become his mistress that week." The picture is entirely charming, even if the lifestyle is now entirely gone.
And then, in the middle of one long summer, Raymond drops his current lover, the sunburned redhead Elsa, and proposes to marry Anne, an old friend. Cécile is appalled; her dreams of life with her father, of the balance of power between them gradually shifting in favour of her telling him her adventures, seem about to be shattered. She determines to stop the marriage, and forms a plan involving Cyril and Elsa pretending to become lovers right under Raymond's nose, trusting that good old fashioned jealousy will drive him to try to win back his erstwhile plaything.
I was expecting to be bored by this book, but needed something very thin to tuck into a pocket (it's just over a hundred pages). I thought that something which shocked France fifty years ago would be either insufferably tawdry, or just plain dull, but that in either case, morés would have changed so drastically in the intervening period, that the book would be all but incomprehensible.
In the event, what I found was a delicately graceful story which is almost timeless in its depiction of falling in love, growing up, growing older, passion and jealousy. Raymond's desire to stay young by bedding younger and younger women is of course only too familiar, but so is Anne's smart and efficient but somehow soulless respectability.
Cécile herself is perhaps the best thing about this book, the character of a teenager drawn with terrifying accuracy. Her relationship with Anne veers between a respect bordering on reverence, and a pathological desire to shock, and this - witness the drunk adolescent trying to be scandalous - will be the thing which keeps modern readers entertained, when implications of extra-marital sex have long lost their power to shock.
What does shock, though, is the ending. Until the last few pages, when the tragic consequences of Cécile's actions become clear, the plot has meandered through a course as languorous as the summer itself; I truly did not expect a moment of high drama. Naturally, through Cécile's eyes, this becomes melodrama, but still it left me stunned. It is, of course, a moral lesson that even the most innocent of meddlers may set in motion events they could not have foreseen, and this thought, too, is timeless.