Never Anyone But You

Written by Rupert Thomson
Review by Diane Scott Lewis

Suzanne Malherbe is a shy teenager in pre-WWI France. She’s a talented illustrator who doesn’t fully blossom until she meets the precocious Lucie Schwob. Lucie is 14, a troubled, free spirit, who has already attempted suicide, certain she’s not long for this world. The young women are instantly attracted and sneak off to discover their forbidden, growing love. Lucie enjoys art and writing—she pens poetry and works on a novel.

Their families are friends, and when spouses die, the remaining spouses marry. Now Suzanne and Lucie are “sisters” and can spend time together without comment. Bored in rural France, the two women travel to Paris and immerse themselves in the avant-garde scene of Surrealists and Dadaism. Lucie reinvents herself as Claude Cahun and Suzanne as Marcel Moore. They vacation on the island of Jersey and decide to purchase a house there.

Hitler rises in power and the Germans invade the island. Claude is infuriated, and she starts a propaganda campaign. She and Marcel write anti-Nazi comments on cigarette packs, distribute flyers, often using poetry to defame the invaders. Their quiet existence disrupted, they live in fear of being caught.

This story, based on fact, follows two pioneering women who revel in their lesbian relationship in a dangerous time. Claude becomes known for her photography, Marcel her drawings. Eschewing real fame, they survive on an allowance from their family. Thomson’s prose is evocative, beautifully descriptive, the novel more emotional than action-based. It can be slow and meandering, but no less compelling. I learned about artists I’d never heard of—including the protagonists—actors, authors, and painters in 1920s-1940s Paris. A literary tour de force that hopefully will rescue these women from obscurity.