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From Normandy beach to Nazi occupation
on 18 January 2009
All Our Worldly Goods is the story of the Hardelots, a family of industrialists living in Saint-Elme, Northern France. The family has established their factory and the local population, who provide all the necessary labour, and all are ruthlessly ruled over by ageing patriarch, Julien Hardelot.
The story begins in 1911 and follows the lives of Pierre, grandson of Julien, and Agnes Florent, the daughter of a local widow. Pierre and Agnes are childhood sweethearts and deeply in love, but this is still a time and a place where the petit-Bourgeois arranged marriages for their offspring and Agnes is not deemed the social equal of Pierre. Pierre is engaged to Simone Renaudin, whose dowry brings the Renaudin fortune to the Hardelots, and one can sense Julien's impatience at getting access to it so that he can invest it in the business. The engagement dinner duly takes place and the future is planned and predictable, just as Saint-Elme and Julien desire it to be.
Suddenly, however, everything changes when Pierre and Agnes meet alone in nearby woods. Knowing how this will be judged by the high-minded moral standards in Saint-Elme, Madame Florent visits Pierre's parents where she mourns the loss of her daughter's prospects in marriage. Pierre overhears the heated conversation and steps in, informing them that he will marry Agnes. Oblivious to his parent's entreaties not to, he will not be dissuaded and their lives are set on a very different course. True to form, Julien disowns his grandson and, feeling their future lies elsewhere, Pierre and Agnes move away to Paris. From then on, our story follows Pierre and Agnes and the fate of the Hardelots, as well as Simone and the town of Saint-Elme, through the First World War, that period entre deux guerres, and into 1940 and the midst of the second great conflict.
This is an exquisite, intimate portrait of love blind to any consequences, of commerce and greed, and of a society at its snobbish peak razed to the ground, literally, not once, but twice by the horrors and realities of war. One cannot help but be aware of Nemirovsky's own life when she portrays the French refugees fleeing the invading German army, redolent of her own family's flight from Russia, and yet it is not a story without hope. Love can overcome despair and give one the strength needed when such awful history unbelievably repeats itself, even reconciliation is possible.
It is a beautiful novel.