58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Suite Française contains two unfinished sections, Storm in June and Dolce, of a planned five-part work about the invasion and occupation of France in World War II. The appendices contain the author's notes for what the other three sections would contain, her correspondence and correspondence about her (especially after she was sent to Auschwitz where she died), and preface to the French edition that outlines her personal history.
This work only recently came to light after Ms. Nemirovsky's surviving daughter, Denise Epstein, began typing out her mother's long-ignored notebook for a memory project.
As you read this work, you'll be responding at two levels: To the monumental tale of a nation unexpectedly brought to its knees and beholden and exposed to its conquerors . . . and to the real human tragedy of a family that would lose both parents while the two daughters survived by being hidden by their governess and those who opposed the Nazis.
Ms. Nemirovsky was a keen observer of the French. All of their quirks from the 1940s are present here, often lampooned into very funny extremes.
Those quirks are first beautifully displayed as a large number of characters are followed while they flee Paris at the last minute before the Germans arrive to evade what they fear will happen to those who stay. With the roads clogged and resources running out, each must cope in her or his own way to find food, lodging, and a safe haven. Not everyone succeeds. In those moments where the realities of the uncivilized aspects of human nature are exposed, you'll feel a chilling presage of the author's ultimate fate.
New dimensions of the quirks are exposed by putting the characters into close contact with German soldiers who are billeted in their homes. Some can make a great show of having no contact, while someone must interact with the Germans to gain benefits that everyone needs. Can you treat an enemy soldier as a person without compromising your own morality, your relationship with your family, and your own integrity? Those are all nice questions that the book raises in Dolce, which covers the period after the invasion through to the beginning of the Russian campaign.
A great strength of these materials can be found in the intense character development. You'll feel like you've always known these people. Even the superficial ones will capture your interest: What selfish, ridiculous actions will they take next?
Even more significantly, the book challenges our notions that groups of people are an entity. Their differences under a label (such as "French" or "German") are much wider than the differences in the labels. You also get a strong message of how dangerous it is for humanity to accept labels rather than considering each person as an individual, as God does.
Rarely have I read any fiction that's so funny, profound, and so enlightening at the same time . . . in the context of great tragedy. You'll find the range of your emotional experiences to be stretched in helpful new ways by this remarkable work.
Writers will take special joy from the book as they gain insights into the working methods of a major novelist.
108 of 114 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2007
I discovered this book by chance and I am so glad I did. Irénes descriptions of occupied France and the effect it had on all classes of people are so vivid and factual. Without malice she takes the reader through each step of what must have been a terrifying journey out of Paris and to the countryside occupied by the German army at a time when trust and hope was in short supply.
Living in France now as I do, reading this has helped me to understand a little about the French attitude to being "French" and perhaps why they fight today to keep some key elements of their way of life.
Written at a time when we can only imagine the horror facing Iréné and her family the appendicies at the back of the book are as thought provoking as the two elements of her unfinished story.
The first appendix detailing her thoughts and plans for the novel she wouldn't be allowed to finish and the second a selection of correspondence predominately between her husband and friends as he tried to find out what had happened to Iréne when she was arrested and deported to Poland.
A brilliant book that I will re-read as I am sure I will pick out additional details each time I do so.
45 of 48 people found the following review helpful
on 24 April 2006
This book is so fresh and interesting because it was written during the war, without the benefit of hindsight. The world didn't know about the death camps at that time - the author may have suspected, or even known, that a terrible fate awaited her by the time she hid the manuscript, but while she was actually writing, the big story was the German invasion and France's defeat. The culmination of the Nazi "final solution", and the subsequent process of holocaust memorialization, were still in the future at that point.
So what we get is a description of France in the early part of the war that is startling in its immediacy precisely because it is not coloured by a knowledge of what occurred during the rest of the war. Do any other contemporary accounts achieve this admittedly accidental and ultimately extraordinarily sad effect? Today's readers know what happened. The author didn't.
Suite Francaise is fresh, surprising and heart-rending - and extremely interesting from a historical documentary standpoint. The writer ain't no JP Sartre - it's pretty absurd to compare her with him - but it's worth a read for the insights it brings. The shortcomings in plotting and structure are pretty irrelevant given the work's other strengths.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Although this is a work of fiction Irene Nemirovsky was there as these events were unfolding and it's amazing, considering what eventually happened to her and her family, how generous she was able to be when writing about the Occuping Forces in this book by concentrating on the humane and the every day. The first part deals with the evacuation of Paris before the Nazis reach it. The second part tells of life as it was in a traditional French village occupied by the Germans later. When you read the appendices it's obvious this was planned as a much bigger oeuvre which tragically was never completed as she was imprisoned and died in camp.
All human characteristics are shown - many not flattering - cowardice, selfishness, prejudice, self interest and the class system all feature. There are some redeeming characters - one of these a German officer.
A very humane and compassionate book which I thoroughly enjoyed.
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
on 27 July 2006
I've just spent the last three evenings reading this book and I can't recommend it highly enough. Although it's written in prose, the descriptions are almost poetic, yet never florid. Quite an achievement, considering the subject matter. In the first part, Nemirovsky perfectly captures the confusion, bewilderment and exasperation of the French when their country was yet again invaded by the Germans and their lives were turned upside down. Her drawing of characters is exquisite and she has a great feel for human nature/psychology as she casually depicts the breakdown of the norms of society.
The second part describes how one particular area dealt with the invaders, who gradually morph into friends for some almost but then back again to barbarians. Nemirovsky has brilliantly captured the dynamics of French provincial life with all its ramifications about status and class and linked them to a wider debate about how life goes on under occupation. It's such a shame (understatement of the year) she was unable to complete the final sections she had planned. This is a book you are disappointed to finish because you just want more.
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 16 March 2008
I really wanted to love Suite Francaise but I just didn't. My mistake was that I tried to read it as a polished novel but found it disjointed and frustrating as such. My friend looked at it as a piece of social history and thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend this approach to future readers.
For me, the most fascinating part of the book is "the preface to the French edition". It covers Irene Nemirovsky's intriguing life(I've added her autobiography le Vin de Solitude to my TBR list) and the touching events of how the novel came into being. Also poignant are the letters that her husband, Michel Epstein, wrote to try and secure her release after she was arrested and sent to Auschwitz where she would eventually die.
95 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on 13 March 2006
I think this is a wonderful book, so moving and beautifully written that you realize after only a few pages, that you are reading a timeless classic, something that will endure for ever in the same way as the great works of Tolstoy or Flaubert. Actually the author has all the lyricism of Tolstoy - and the breadth of vision - but doesn't hammer on about her 'message' as he can do. Think of those passages in Anna Karenina where the great man begins to describe Levin and the ideal life in the country. There is none of this in Suite Francaise. And the wonder of it is that you don't realize the author was Jew living life on borrowed time , exiled to the French countryside and with the full knowledge of what this invasion meant for her personally and her family. There is no fear in the book. It is essentially and creatively feminine. That Irene N. was about to be taken and killed , that she was a Jew in the middle of a European abomination , that never intrudes. You don't read the book for what the author suffered, despite her knowledge of her own personal perilous position, she just lets her art take over so what we get is a timeless brilliant classic which is so much more of an amazing legacy to her and those who died than any personalized or angled account could ever have been. What real heroism to do this, what an achievement, to rise about the fear and humiliation and write this wonderful work. And the translation is fantastic just because we don't notice it specially. Sandra Smith ( translators like editors are surely born to live in the shadows ) has done a fabulous job in not making the book seem at all foreign. There are no jarring phrases and odd distracting foreignisms that often get in the way of really enjoying a great work like this . Of course we are reading Irene Nemirovsky but every word on the page is Smith's and they are all beautifully chosen to match the lyricism of the original.
This is one of the most important books to emerge for years and, it sounds rather plangent but a triumph of life and art over he forces of death and ignorance.
95 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on 16 May 2006
I had read several reviews and deliberated before, finally, making my purchase. Simply to read this novel does not portray the entire experience. The characters in the book are convincingly real, but what I found surprising, was the way in which Irene depicted the occupying forces, not as brutes en masse, but as individuals, each capable of many acts of kindness and consideration.
Once read, it is vital to read the material in the appendices and to consider the times in which these people lived and their total helplessness, in a situation beyond their comprehension.
There are books which stay with you for a while, this one will stay with me forever!
67 of 73 people found the following review helpful
This is one of my favourite books--haunting, gripping, vivid, it tells unflinchingly what it's actually like to be caught up in an invasion and occupation. My parents were children during the Occupation of France by the Nazis, and much of what they've told me is reflected in this brilliant, clear-eyed novel. What is extraordinary though is how the author, hunted and pursued as a Jew in France, was able to keep her eyes and her head so clear in the midst of what must have been huge personal turmoil, and terror. Her bravery is incredibly affecting. But the novel is not just worth reading as a personal testament; it is a gripping novel, with vivid characters that would have helped to populate a vast canvas, eventually, if the author had been able to write the 'War and Peace' style saga she planned.
The letters and notes that are reproduced at the end of the novel are haunting, too. It is simply a book that should be read by as many people as possible.
34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 30 June 2007
It is tragic that Irene Nemirovski died in a concentration camp, and such a loss that she could never finish the monumental work she had planned. But the two parts she completed are compelling. Those reluctant to read the book because others have revealed the plot should not be put off. The reviews deal only the themes for the various interlocking stories, but it is the detail that makes the book outstanding, the depth of feeling, the despair, the realisation that the enemy soldier is an individual with his own family, his loves, his losses, who can be liked or even loved, but who, when crisis looms, is still the enemy, to be feared and despised and, where possible, tricked.
The first part is fast-moving, frenetic almost, but in the second part the war is understated. This is not the WW2 equivalent of the trenches, portrayed so vividly in 'Birdsong' (Sebastian Faulks). This is about relationships, the interactions between the occupied French and the German soldiers billeted in their village, and between the French themselves. The reactions of the villagers to the enemy soldiers were fascinating, insightful, and at times amusing, in their realism, written, as they were, by a someone experiencing the occupation as it happened. The descriptions of natural beauty - a summer's evening, or a blackbird singing - provide delicious irony against a pervading background of war and strife.
This is a wide-ranging, thought-provoking book, a book of contrasts, of characters so skilfully depicted that you feel you know them - even those who feature only fleetingly - of oppression, and of hope. I'd certainly recommend it - it's well worth the read.