Breaking Away – Anna Gavalda (2009, trans. Alison Anderson 2011) 143 pages
Breaking Away is a simply plotted novella which appears deceptively straightforward in its storytelling, but builds towards a meaningful resolution.
Garance is in her late twenties and cadges a lift to a wedding with her brother Simon and annoying sister in law Carine. The characterisation of Carine starts the novella off on an enjoyably bitchy note as the chaotic Garance, who has stayed up all night playing poker and is waxing her legs on the backseat, offends beauty pharmacist Carine’s sensibilities.
“Carine is utterly perplexed. She consoles herself by stirring sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.”
They stop and pick up another sibling, Lola, who likes to conspire with Garance to wind up Carine. At which point I began to feel for Carine – maybe she wouldn’t be such a nightmare if the siblings weren’t so cliquey and excluding. At this point though, the portrait of Carine does modify slightly.
“She may be a first class pain but she does like to please others. Credit where credit is due.
And she really doesn’t like to leave pores in a state of shock. It breaks her heart.”
Their fourth sibling, Vincent, isn’t at the wedding, so the three of them leave Carine and bunk off to go and collect him. Garance reflects on her various siblings’ trials and tribulations and how their upbringing has influenced who they are. She decides her parents are culpable:
“Because they’re the ones who taught us about books and music. Who talked to us about other things and forced us to see things in a different light. To aim higher and further. But they also forgot to give us confidence, because they thought that would come naturally. That we had a special gift for life, and compliments might spoil our egos.
They got it wrong.
The confidence never came.
So here we are. Sublime losers.”
But the humour in the novella stops it being self-pitying. In fact, the four of them are doing OK. They’re just enjoying taking a rare moment to spend time together.
Breaking Away captures a moment in time for the four siblings, and has an elegiac quality, for time past and relationships that must inevitably change. The tone isn’t sad however, more resolute; it’s about how love endures beyond all the external changes.
“What we were experiencing at that moment – something all four of us were aware of – was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people.”
To end, plenty of songs are name-checked in Breaking Away, including this one which “taught us more English than all our teachers put together”: