I've been hard at work reading two massive books for Paris in July, and as a quick break, I picked up The Misunderstanding by Irene Nemirovsky. Her first novel, just 164 pages long, was first published in 1926. It's the story of an affair between Yves Harteloup, a young war veteran, and Denise Jessaint, a bored rich woman, the wife of another war veteran whom Yves met while both were convalescing at a military hospital.
The two meet at the end of the summer in the resort town of Hendaye, on the south east coast of France. Yves was raised wealthy but lost nearly all his money due to poor wartime investments by his financial advisors. He's found a job and has barely enough to hold on to his family apartment in Paris, and his one indulgence is his annual holiday, to the town he visited as a child. There Yves meets the beautiful Denise when her toddler throws sand on him as he dozes on the beach.
After he realizes she's the wife of an old comrade, Yves is initially annoyed to have his idyllic trip interrupted by someone from his past; soon, however, he begins to feel a strong attraction to the beautiful Denise. After her husband goes to London, leaving her alone (well, with the child and nanny), he becomes obsessed with Denise, who married for convenience and money. Soon the attraction is returned, and the affair begins.
Things become complicated when Denise and her husband return to Paris, and Yves has to return to his humdrum job. Denise wants more and more from Yves, but can only see him for brief snatches of time; Yves becomes despondent when he realizes he'll never be able to keep up with her wealthy lifestyle, and falls deeper into debt. It's far from a fairytale romance
It was a quick read, and I finished nearly the whole thing in a single sitting -- a big change from the doorstoppers I've been working on this summer. Neither Yves nor Denise are particularly likable characters, but the story is so realistic, and the writing is so good that I found myself sympathizing with both of them. It's astonishing to me that Nemirovsky wrote this when she was only 22 or 23.
This was a perfect read for Paris in July -- I could imagine myself in the neighborhoods of Paris and I even looked up some of the streets and neighborhoods on Google Maps as I was reading. I really wish I was in Paris this summer but armchair traveling through literature will have to do! I've now read six of Nemirovsky's works and would like to read her entire oeuvre. There's also The Mirador, an imagining of her memoirs by her daughter, Elisabeth Gille, published by NYRB Classics, and a biography. Her life sounds fascinating and tragic.