In 1930s Paris, beautiful socialite Gladys Eysenach is accused of murdering her 20-year-old lover. The story begins with Eysenach’s trial and then backtracks through her life to show the path to this dénouement. It’s the story of a woman completely consumed with her physical appearance and its unavoidable corollary – the adoration of men. As is inevitable in a life built on such an unstable foundation, when Eysenach begins to age, the entire shaky structure comes tumbling down, crushing others in the process.
Those used to American jurisprudence will find the trial contrived, made up of irrelevant testimony serving only to relate backstory; given the French legal system, however, it’s a case of strange in fact but true in law. The glamour of a wealthy life spanning pre-WWI to the 1930s provides historical atmosphere, but this novella is, in essence, a character study. In a strange sort of third-person omniscient narrative that focuses on Eysenach but occasionally, without warning, jumps to others’ perceptions of her, a mercilessly objective picture emerges. Némirovsky has the distinction of crafting the single-most selfish, Narcissistic character I have ever encountered on the written page. That is the terror of this book: that Eysenach is drawn with such depth and perfection because she existed in real life – she’s allegedly modeled on Némirovsky’s own mother. Eysenach is a monster, but a pathetic one. She’s meant to evoke a measure of pity mixed with the disgust (and, in some cases, astonishment) she elicits.
It’s good that this book is short – there’s only so much one can take. There are no surprises in plotting, only in the extremes of Eysenach’s self-absorption. This is my first Némirovsky read, and my expectations, driven by the praise of her posthumous bestseller, Suite Française, were perhaps too high. Overall, this is an amazingly crafted character study… but of a character one quickly has more than enough of studying.