Syncopation: A Memoir of Adèle Hugo

Written by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt
Review by Cynthia McArthur

This novel is billed as Adèle Hugo’s personal memoir, written only as Adèle could write it: scattered, sometimes tortured, passionate and very much told from inside her own head. It begins with her early childhood, when her mother is banned by her jealous and overbearing husband – Adèle’s father, Victor – from visiting her best friend because they are in love, and continues through the joy of Adèle’s relationship with her older sister, Didine; the ambivalence she held for her brothers (who get away with anything because they are men); her somewhat extreme promiscuity from an early age; her antipathy for her on-again, off-again and angst-filled fiancé; and her middle-of-the night escape from her controlling father’s chains. Adèle tells us her story via anecdotes written in the third person, but from her personal point of view, as she was so introverted as to almost never see another person’s perspective. As she writes her memoir, Didine reminds her every few chapters that it didn’t happen that way at all. Adèle’s response? She doesn’t want to bore the reader.

In her time, Adèle was considered mad, and as I read this book and became intimately attuned to Adèle’s story, I found myself constantly wavering between considering her sane but repressed and believing her completely out of touch with reality and those around her. The author does an excellent job of presenting Adèle to the world as a woman ahead of her time yet held back by the social conventions of the era. A very enjoyable read.