Bonjour Tristesse is the story of one summer in the life of Cécile, a seventeen year old girl, and her father, Raymond, a wealthy widowed womaniser, aged forty. Cécile has failed her recent university exams, but doesn’t much care – she doesn’t have to with her father around to support her – and all she wants to do is swim, lay around on the beach, and fall in love temporarily with Cyril, a young man she meets in the sea. She is comfortable and innocent in her hedonistic life, with no mother and a careless father who she barely knew before her return from boarding school to start university in Paris.
Raymond has brought along Elsa, his current, twenty-nine year old, mistress, so Cécile is greatly surprised when it turns out he has also invited Anne, who is forty-two and has a much more serious personality than theirs, to stay with them. Gradually Cécile notices that Anne is really much more beautiful and clever than Elsa, and she realises that her father will soon make Anne his new mistress.
She has the shock of her life when Raymond announces that he intends to marry Anne, and when Anne makes it very clear that she will change their lives forever. Cécile is torn – she admires Anne and imagines she will be moulded into a better person by her stepmother, but she loves her easy, carefree life and mindlessly following her impulses and passions. Anne wants Cécile to study for her exam retakes and to stop seeing Cyril, and Cécile rebels, pretending to study whilst really plotting and sneaking out to meet Cyril and Elsa. She plans to use them to break her father and Anne up, even though she knows it is wrong. She imagines that if she changes her mind, she can stop the plan at any moment, manipulate everything as she chooses, but she is tragically wrong.
This is an very short novel, translated from the original French, the edition I have read and am reviewing was translated by Irene Ash for Penguin books. It is told in first person from Cécile’s point of view, and the detail of characterisation reflects her interests – Anne is the character that is depicted in the most detail, whereas Raymond, Cyril and Elsa are drawn quickly and are not really explored. Cécile has no interest in anyone but herself normally, but Anne is a threat to Cécile’s way of life, and a woman completely different from her but equally skilled at manipulating people. This story is completely free from obvious moral or ethical criticism, Cécile and Raymond do not judge their own actions, they simply do not care about anyone or anything enough to do so, and it is left for the reader to judge the characters and their behaviour, which I feel gives the book more of an impact.
I found this book to be a quick, absorbing read, and I would recommend it to anyone with a spare couple of hours! I just got the 1958 film adaptation out of my university library and am looking forward to comparing the two.