Novella a Day in May 2020 #9

The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain (2014, trans. Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken 2015) 159 pages

The Red Notebook walks a very thin line and I suspect for some readers it will have crossed that line, from whimsical romance at a distance, to creepy stalker tale. Looking at goodreads most seem to have gone for the former, and that’s how I read it too, but I’m not entirely unsympathetic to the latter view.

Anyway, I’ll put my psychological reservations to one side and let you know about a charming novella that conjures Paris beautifully, features a cameo from Patrick Modiano, and plays into that old romantic trope of lovers that are destined for one another.

Laure is a widow in her 40s who mugged for her mauve handbag and ends up in hospital in a coma. Bookseller Laurent – similar name, similar age to Laure – finds her bag after the mugger has dumped it having removed ID, purse and mobile phone. He tries to hand it in but police bureaucracy means he ends up holding on to it, trying to piece together the owner from its contents:

“a little fawn and violet leather bag containing make-up and accessories, including a large brush whose softness he tested against his cheek. A gold lighter, a black Montblanc ballpoint (perhaps the one used to jot down her thoughts in the notebook), a packet of licorice sweets…a small bottle of Evian, a hairclip with a blue flower on it, and a pair of red plastic dice.”

The titular notebook is part of the contents, and it is a diary which Laurent reads to try and find clues to who Laure is:

“I’m scared of red ants.

And of logging on to my bank account and clicking ‘current balance’.

I’m scared when the telephone rings first thing in the morning.

And of getting the Metro when its packed.

I’m scared of time passing.

I’m scared of electric fans, but I know why.”

Laurent has some success in piecing together Laure’s life, and in the process we learn about them both. Laurent has a teenage daughter who is brattish but loving, and a girlfriend to whom he’s not entirely committed. He likes his job and he’s interested in literature.

He’s also increasingly interested in Laure and a sequence of events lead to him collecting her dry cleaning and cat-sitting for her (!) It was at this point I thought things had gone too far, but then Laurain manages to tip the balance of power in a believable turn of events that meant the story kept me on side.

If you’re in the mood for some escapism across the channel and some gentle romance, then The Red Notebook could be just the ticket.

“I like to try new things.” (Rufus Wainwright)

This post contains strong language and adult content.  If you’re not an adult, or if you are and you find such things offensive, please don’t read on.  Now to the post!

FINALS ARE OVER!  FINALS ARE OVER!  Oh, the sweet, sweet relief.  I feel like this:

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The week before I felt like this:

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Unfortunately, during exams I felt like this:

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Six exams in eight days is not the worst finals schedule, but it was more than enough for me.  Well-meaning souls kept telling me it was a marathon, not a sprint.  I don’t run marathons.  I don’t sprint. I prefer to lie on my bed with some drool coming out of my mouth as I read books & watch films.  That drool is liquid contentment, people.  Anyway, as this wittering and reliance on GIFs is ably demonstrating, I think my brain has now dribbled out of my ears, possibly never to return.  And now FINALS ARE OVER (sorry, but I can never say that phrase enough) what is a bibliophile to do?  Well, I decided to read a book highly recommended by Charl over at Miscrawl, The List by Joanna Bolouri.

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(Image from: http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/book/The-List-by-Joanna-Bolouri-ISBN_9781848663084#.U4DLzvldWSo )

I don’t normally read light comic novels, they’re generally not my cup of tea.  However, after weeks, nay months, of ploughing through some seriously heavy literature, I wanted something fun.  And The List certainly delivered on that, but that’s not why I decided to write about it here.  The reason was that I think The List offers something unfortunately all-too-rare in fiction: a recogniseably authentic female voice.  And that voice is sweary:

“Back to work today, and I had a mountain of emails to go through…Two of the emails were from Alex, who obviously didn’t know I was on holiday, and I deleted them without reading, otherwise I’d be tempted to reply ‘GET IT RIGHT UP YOU FUCKFACE’ in 72pt comic sans.”

We’ve all had emails like that.

Phoebe Henderson breaks up with her horrible boyfriend (the aforementioned Alex), and eschewing the usual New Year’s resolutions to get fit/lose weight blah blah she makes a list of 10 things she’d like to do in bed but has never had the nerve to try.  The novel takes the form of her diary over the year as she tries out these activities, some successful, some not, with a variety of people, some nice and gorgeous, some most definitely not.

Bolouri achieves quite something with Phoebe: a slightly messed up, slightly neurotic character who, rather than getting frustrated with and wanting to shake vigorously by the shoulders, I wholly recognised and wanted to take for a drink.  She’s good company.  She hates her job, hates her flat, loves her friends, is in her 30s and hasn’t quite got it all figured out yet.  Who the hell has?  Oh Phoebe, let’s get smashed on cheap cocktails, buy a dirty burger from a botulism-on-wheels van on the way home and wake up the next morning with mouths that feel like Satan’s armpit, wondering why we’re still doing this after all these years.  I love you.

Some of the list opens Phoebe’s eyes to sexual adventure, some of it leaves her feeling a bit meh.  None of it leaves her feeling worthless or degraded.  This is a woman embracing her sexuality and feeling empowered by it.  In that way the novel has something to say, and it’s made more powerful by the fact that it’s funny and entertaining, yet not entirely escapist.  Phoebe doesn’t have a perfect body & a perfect life, and not everything goes to plan, like her first attempt at talking dirty:

“I walked out of my room, naked, to get some water and he followed me in to the kitchen where we did it over the worktops.  I was unsettled for a second when I found myself face down in toast crumbs, but then he started whispering delicious obscenities in my ear.  I tried to return the favour but failed miserably: “Fucking prick.”

“What?”

“Erm, nothing. Carry on.””

I love this: the banal detail of the toast crumbs, the epic fail on dirty talk.  It’s funny, and oh-so-believeable. Balouri shows how fantasy and reality don’t match up, and it’s OK because reality can be funnier and more exciting than fantasy anyway.

Joanna Bolouri blogs on WordPress here.

I normally write on two books per post, but I’m only doing one this week, because FINALS ARE OVER (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that?) and my stamina for rational thought and writing in continuous prose is severely depleted.  I’m off to replenish with rioja and a bag of chips.  I don’t care if it is 10am – don’t judge me.  All rules are off because FINALS ARE OVER!

yay