(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 6, 2008)
“How come we live several different lives? Maybe I’m generalizing a bit. Maybe I’m the only one who feels like this. I will only die once and yet, during this time I’m allotted, I will have lived a series of related but clearly distinct existences.”
In Chez Moi written by French author Agnes Desarthe, middle-aged Myriam opens up a small restaurant. While this is not unusual, the manner in which Myriam finances her project is. The book’s opening paragraph takes the form of a both a confessional and an introduction to its main character, a risk-taker and non-conformist:
“Am I a liar? Yes, because I told the man at the bank I’d been on a hotel and catering course and done an eighteen-month work placement at the Ritz. I showed him the diplomas and contracts I’d made the day before. I also brandished a management training certificate, a really good fake. I like living dangerously: that’s how I lost my way in the past, and why I’m on a winning streak now. The banker was completely taken in, and gave me the loan. I thanked him without turning a hair.”
While Myriam has the fairly typical illusions of what’s involved in opening and running a restaurant, reality hits hard the very first day. After cooking, cleaning and preparing for an onslaught of customers, no one enters the front door, and Myriam spends her day full of anxiety as she watches a few stray people hovering around the entrance. Her first customers are a couple of schoolgirls named Simone and Hannah, and Myriam deciding that these attractive girls are her good luck charms and also excellent for business, spontaneously offers them meals at cut prices, and eventually this evolves into meals for 4 Euros in perpetuity.
Myriam has never run a restaurant before, and while she’s determined to succeed, she’s unsure about many levels of business operations. But since she serves good food at reasonable prices, she soon has more business than she can handle single-handedly, and her days are spent toiling from dawn to midnight. After the restaurant closes, and she cleans up, Myriam manages to catch a few hours sleep on the premises. No one, not even the amorous florist Vincent next door, suspects that she lives there too--in spite of leaving tell-tale evidence such as her wet bra in the kitchen to dry. But Simone and Hannah impressed by the behavior of this strange restaurateur can see she needs help and they send a friend named Ben to the restaurant to help with the workload.
While Chez Moi is the story of how Myriam launches her restaurant, it’s also the tale of how our actions haunt us. Myriam has led several distinct lives--a period spent as a wife and mother was followed by years spent as a cook for the Santo Salto Circus. When the book begins, Myriam’s life with the circus has ended, and she embarks on another segment of her life as a restaurateur. As the novel unfolds, a story of a life of nonconformity is gradually revealed. Myriam’s attitude to the restaurant and also the contents of her bookshelves are testament to an independent thinker who was never comfortable with her role as a wife and mother. Unfortunately it took an explosive incident to pry her loose from the bonds of matrimony and motherhood, and here she is years later in a life that seems completely separate from the one she lived before. When she begins her life as a restaurateur, she discovers that she rather likes her “new personality,” and she almost becomes carried away with fabricating an entire past that will match her present.
Myriam’s quirky attitude to life seeps through the pages. Told in the first person, she freely admits her thoughts to the reader while also acknowledging that some of those thoughts are never expressed for their social unacceptability, and while this is at times delightful, it’s also sad to think that someone as gifted and interesting as Myriam finds herself harnessed into a life in which she cannot freely express her thoughts. There are a few shared moments with her brother--a man whose values are far removed from Myriam’s, but for the most part her thoughts lie far beneath the surface of her actions and shared only with the reader.
Part of Myriam’s isolation originates in her past, and just as her kindness towards Simone and Hannah is repaid, Myriam’s actions from her past life will boomerang back to her when she least expects it. An enjoyable read, Desarthe’s novel is a celebration of non-conformity, individualism, and quiet search for self. (Translated by Adreana Hunter)
- Amazon readers rating: from 2 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Five Photos of My Wife (1998)
- Good Intentions (2000)
- Chez Moi (2006; April 2008 in US)
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- Official website for the Agnes Desarthe (French)
- Paris-Expat interview with Agnes Desarthe
- The Age review of Five Photos of My Wife, Good Intentions
- The Compulsive Reader review of Good Intentions
- Reading Group Guide of Chez Moi
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About the Author:
Agnes Desarthe was born in Paris in 1966. She has written over 25 books for children, teenagers, and 6 novels. Two of her previous novels were translated into English: Five Photos of My Wife (2001), which was short-listed for both the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Jewish Quarterly Fiction Prize, and Good Intentions (2002). Chez Moi is her first book to be published in the U.S.
She translates for both houses that publish her work, Editions de l'Olivier and l'Ecole des Loisirs.Among the many authors she has translated are Lois Lowry, Alice Thomas Ellis, Anne Fine, Louis Sachar, Chaim Potok, Virginia Woolf, Aimee Bender, Jay McInerney, and Cynthia Ozick.
She also teaches English.
She lives with her family in Paris, France.