I tried to read Suite Française when it first came out in the early 2000’s, but I was completely turned off by its characters, whom I found petty and vicious. But that’s exactly the point, I find, picking up the book again because of a book club. Although a well-known writer who had lived in France for half her life, Némirovsky was denied French citizenship presumably because she was Jewish. She was inspired to write the novel because of the behavior she witnessed during the evacuation of Paris in World War II. She never finished this ambitious novel because she was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 by the French government and died there a month later.
Suite Française consists of the first two parts of what was to be a five-part novel. “Storm in June” follows various Parisians as they evacuate Paris with the rumor of the German advance. They have left it very late, but even so, Mrs. Péricard delays, waiting for her linen to be returned from the launderer. Later, she scours a small village trying to find sweets to refill her supply that she has passed out to starving fellow evacuees, but when she learns that everyone is out of everything, she snatches back some of her treats to save them for her family. Even later, in a rush to catch a train to safety, she actually forgets her ailing father-in-law, who dies alone in a hospice.
Charles Langelet abandons Paris in his car filled with his collection of porcelain. When he runs out of gas, he persuades a young couple that they can rest and he will watch their car, which he steals.
Gabriel Corte is a famous writer who evacuates with his mistress, Florence. Throughout the chaos, he behaves with extreme selfishness and expects special treatment.
The only sympathetic characters are the Michauds, who work in a bank. They have been instructed by their boss, Corbin, to meet him with their things in front of the bank, where employees who are needed in Tours can share rides. He himself has promised a ride to the Michauds, but when they get to his car, his mistress is there with her dog, even though he has already told her he can’t take her. After an argument, the Michauds are abandoned, with no recourse except to walk to Tours. All the while, they are worried about their son Jean-Marie, a soldier at the front. When they are forced to return to Paris because the road to Tours is closed, Corbin fires them.
The spiteful, satiric tone of “Storm in June” subsides a bit for “Dolce.” This volume examines the fate of two families in the village and countryside nearby where many of the evacuees ended up stranded before they returned to Paris. It is now months later.
One family is the Sabaries, the country folk who tended Jean-Marie when he was wounded. Although their foster daughter Madeleine fell in love with Jean-Marie, she has married the son of the family, Benoît, and has had a baby. A young German officer has been billeted on the family and pays attention to her. Although she is afraid of the German, Benoît is jealous.
In the village, Lucile Angellier is shut up in the dark house with her mother-in-law, who dislikes her. (The Angelliers briefly took in the Péricard family during the evacuation.) Lucile was pushed into her marriage by her father and found out soon afterwards that her husband has a mistress. In her loneliness, she becomes attracted to the German lieutenant billeted in their house.
My strongest reaction was to the first book, which I found a bit shocking. Despite a review comment on the back of the book about its “indictment of French manners and morals,” I wasn’t sure if the social commentary was meant to be more general or specifically against the French. According to Némirovsky’s own notes, it was against the French.
As to the second book, it seemed as if it was intended to build toward ramifications later in the novel, which, of course, was never finished.