Friday, February 15, 2019

Book Review: "Lie with Me" by Philippe Besson (translated by Molly Ringwald)

"This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. But it also consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable."

Philippe is a famous writer being interviewed at a hotel in Bordeaux when he sees a handsome man walk by. The man jars Philippe's memory, reminding him of his first love, when he was in his last year of high school in 1984.

Philippe is the studious one, shy yet fiercely intelligent. He has already been marked by his peers as "different"; he bears their shouted and whispered insults, and wants nothing more than to blend in. Thomas is quiet, rarely speaks yet is often spoken to, and is popular among his peers. He is handsome, so he catches the attention of many of the female students.

The two have never spoken, yet Philippe is inexplicably drawn to Thomas. He watches him, observes him, but doesn't think Thomas notices him (or even knows who he is), and Philippe is unsure of how he feels about that fact. Does he want Thomas to know what their peers think of him, the names they've called him?

One day, Thomas approaches Philippe. He fears that Thomas might have seen him staring, might want to beat him up. But instead, Thomas asks if he might want to go to lunch in town instead of eat in the school lunchroom. He agrees, but doesn't understand what Thomas wants from him. During lunch, Thomas tells him he is struggling with his sexuality, and he can no longer fight these feelings in silence.

When Philippe asks why Thomas has chosen him, he replies, "Because you are not like all the others, because I don't see anyone but you and you don't even realize it."

The two quickly fall into a secret relationship—mostly sexual, although there certainly are overtones of romance. Outside of their encounters, they pretend not to know each other, and make no move to declare their feelings for one another. Inherently, Thomas knows that when high school is done, Philippe will leave their small French town to make his way in the world, leaving Thomas behind. And despite the intensity of their unspoken feelings, both know that this is their trajectory.

Can we ever forget the raw emotions, the intensity, the longing of our first true love? How does that relationship affect the rest of our lives? In Lie with Me, Philippe Besson poignantly captures those feelings, the way every fiber of your being is affected, the way you want nothing more than that person and cannot bear the thought of being apart. And how you mourn the end of that relationship, how it feels like no pain you've ever experienced, so much more than your heart can bear.

Besson and Molly Ringwald, who translated the novel from the French, paints a beautiful, emotional picture of a man who has made something of his life as was always expected, but when he is reminded of his first love, reminisces about that glorious yet painful time, and how indelibly their lives have changed in the years since.

Lie with Me has been called "the French Brokeback Mountain," and while there are no cowboys, and this book didn't quite make me sob the way that movie did, there is a tremendous amount of poignancy, emotion, and beauty to be had in this story. Ringwald's translation felt flawless to me—quite often when I read translated novels I find some awkwardness in the syntax or the way some expressions are relayed.

"That singular moment. The pure urgency of it. There were circumstances—a series of coincidences and simultaneous desire. There was something in the atmosphere, something in the time and place, that brought us together."

What a gorgeous, moving book this was.

NetGalley and Scribner provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available! To be published April 30, 2019.

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