Book Review: Suite française by Irène Némirovsky

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I had this book on my “To Read” list for almost ten years! Last month, for my birthday, I decided to feed my inner Francophile by reading 9 books with French themes. Whether they took place in France or were about French history. Sadly, I only made it through 6 of them.

I did not know much about “Suite française” when I added it to my “To Read” list on Goodreads. I just knew it came highly recommended. So last month, when I sat down to read the book, I decided to do a little research on it.

The story behind the book and author herself is so sad and tragic that it could make it’s own novel. Irène Némirovsky was a French born Jew who outlined a sequence of five novels that she had planned to write. In 1942, after finishing the first two of the novels while hiding out in the French countryside, she was arrested by the German army and detained at Auschwitz, where she later died as a victim of the Nazi holocaust. Apparently, her notebook was discovered, translated and published some 60 years later in 2004.

The novel encompasses the first two of her original manuscripts and details the German occupation of France. In the first section, Tempête en juin (Storm in June), Némirovsky tells the stories of several characters fleeing Paris as the Germans advance into the city to take control.

In the second section, Dolce (Sweet), we follow the citizens of a small French country village. German soldiers have been stationed in the village and live with a few of the families. In Tempête en join we get the sense of impending danger and the urgency of the characters to flee Paris. However, in Dolce, it is a more peaceful setting and storyline.

It is the history and timeline of that period that tie the stories together, not so much the characters. Although, a few of the characters do overlap from one to another.

Overall, I found this story to very endearing and at times a little sad. However, Némirovsky did layer in some humor in how the characters reacted in certain situations. Given the sadness of her history and the theme of the novel, one is hard pressed to think there could be some humor in this story, but it is there. Albeit, small and few between.

The appendix includes notes on Némirovsky’s imprisonment. I highly recommend you give this book a read. It has a wonderful flow to it and tells a unique perspective of a time in French history.  To me this was similar to The Diary of Anne Frank. This is definitely a book to share with a friend, and in fact I have already given away my copy.