Another book bought from the Salon du Livre à Beyrouth. I hesitated a lot before even considering this book as a potential buy, because I had no intention of reading something with the word Amour in its title. I also didn’t know what to think of the blurb in the back, a woman abandoning everything because she wants to rejoin her first love. Classically corny.
And since I didn’t learn my lesson from assuming too much based on blurbs, this time I was pleasantly surprised. Somehow, even though I wasn’t a 48-year old married woman with three daughters, I identified quite well with the leading character, Emilie.
It’s her 25th wedding anniversary. She regrets not being able to celebrate it in New York (wise choice), and so decides against dinner at a restaurant and opts to stay in. She takes the day off and thoroughly prepares the food, takes care of her clothes, lingerie, even bed sheets, and heads down to the cellar to pick-up a bottle of wine. The bottle of wine is wrapped with a newspaper on which is a classified with the words:
Emilie, Aix 1976. Rejoins-moi au plus vite à Gênes [Meet me as soon as possible in Genoa]. Dario
She leaves home, takes her car and heads south to Italy fully conscious of her act, which is something I appreciated in the story. Questions arise in her head, certainly, but nothing to make her doubt her whim. Gradually, she starts wondering about how the others would react, primarily her husband, Marc, whether he would bother her parents, whether he would call her daughters, and what would he think of her act.
The book is split into two parts, before and after Genoa. The before part is the more interesting one to me precisely because the entertainment aspect of the story is missing from it. The second part is a mere plot development: we want to find out if all this was true, if she will meet with him, why did Dario ask her to join him, etc…
The first part is the one of the flashbacks to 1976, to her first encounter with Dario, to her teen years growing up in a family in Aix with her sister who has Down’s syndrome, and a mother with whom she longs to connect. Incidentally, I like how she introduced the reader to her sister:
Souvent je pense à cette grande soeur qui avait quelque chose de plus que moi, un chromosome pas très sympathique, le 21.
[I often think of my elder sister who had a little something more than me, the not so nice chromosome 21]
In the first part is the dressing up of the balance sheet of her life: her marriage to Marc, having a family while being employed, taking part in society, in the community, among her colleagues, playing the social role of hostess and friend, raising her daughters. She reveals having done all that in beautiful writing:
Je voulais me marier, avoir des enfants, un metier, des amis, des vacances et des Noël. J’ai eu tout ça. J’y ai mis tant d’énergie, de peur et d’attention, j’ai suivi tant de conseils, lu tant de livres, de magazines, passé tant d’heures au téléphone avec des amies qui avaient des enfants du même age, des maris trop sérieux ou volages, trop présents ou pressés, et qui me donnaient des adresses de Gîtes de France, de médecins compétents, de psychologues disponibles, on échangeaient nos colères et nos fatigues mais jamais pour s’en débarrasser, toujours pour les surmonter, les faire passer pour une défaillance passagère, on avait tort.
[I wanted to get married, have children, a job, friends, holidays and Christmases. I had it all. I put so much energy, fear and attention, I followed all the tips, read all the books and magazines, spent so many hours on the phone with friends who had children of the same age , overly serious or promiscuous husbands, too close or inaccessible, friends who tipped me on hotels and vacations, competent doctors, available psychologists, we exchanged of our anger and our fatigue but never to get rid of them, always to overcome them and making them seem to be a temporary lapse, we were wrong.]
After this passage that encompasses the lifetime of a working mother, I thought it is understandable if she jumps ship and decides to have her little adventure. But apparently it’s still not the case for women, even in the Western world: our narrator wonders if she is allowed to have an adventure at her age, and what are the rules and judgements that govern such a behavior? There are none.
This is the beauty of literature; in those social grey areas one can postulate many hypotheses and test them in a book. In Le Premier Amour, Emilie, as much as she tries, cannot extricate herself from her role as a mother, a wife and a sister. As the book moves forward, her surrounding catches up with her, and what could have continued as an escapade, slowly turned into conscience clearing. She takes advantage of her proximity to her sister to visit her after so many years, to relive with her some of her childhood dreams, she visits her daughter whose decisions dragged her away form her mother.
Though at times her words seem childish – I’m going to meet up with the only man whom I ever loved, she tells her daughter – there is too much spur-of-the-moment rebellion in her, following that distant call from Dario, for her words to be taken seriously. Internally, she rebels against this motherly status that stuck to her, without her knowing it:
Nourrir, soigner, consoler, comprendre, pardonner [Feed, care, comfort, understand, forgive]
As we get closer to the second part of the book, the narrator wonders if her monologue would have been different -indeed if it would have even existed- had she been a man? The question is posed without too much moralizing writing following it, and I’m glad for that, because I suppose Olmi trusts the reader enough to arrive at his/her own answer to this question.
Like I said in the beginning, the writing quickly grabbed my unfocused interest as I wasn’t too content reading about Emilie’s arrangements for her wedding anniversary, but its fast pace kept me hooked well until the early part of the second half of the book. This fast-paced writing somehow obliterates the stereotypes associated with genre writing, and though I expected to drudge through a book about love, I felt closer to it than I did to the office life partially portrayed by de Vigan.
Before I conclude with my recommended label for Le Premier Amour, I must note the shock I received when I found out that Marc, Emilie’s husband, is a taxi driver. I have no idea why I pictured in my mind a bourgeois family enjoying every now and then mid-level luxuries. I suppose I associated, early on, the reckless behavior of abandoning one’s family to follow one’s first love, as something a bourgeois character might indulge in. I was very happy to discover that such was not the case.