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Elle by Philippe Djian

First published in France in 2012; published in translation by Other Press on May 23, 2017

Michèle lives in fear, sometimes in a state of panic. She believes in signs and portents that she sees everywhere. She receives anonymous texts that might be perceived as threatening, and she assumes they came from her rapist. Michèle treats the rape as a fact of life, in much the same way as she regards less significant events in her life.

The forces that shaped Michèle quickly become apparent. Michèle’s father has served thirty years in prison for a monstrous crime that occurred during Michèle's childhood. Her mother is paying young men for sex. Michèle isn’t pleased that her mother wants her to visit and forgive her father.

Michèle’s job is to evaluate screenplays. She doesn’t like Richard’s, a subject she danced around during the years they were married. Michèle left Richard before he learned about her affair with Robert, husband of her best friend Anna. Her son Vincent has been rude to her ever since the divorce. Vincent’s girlfriend Josie is pregnant by another man.

All of this we piece together in the first thirty pages of a novel that is largely based on Michèle’s fragmented thoughts. She is surprised when a rivalry develops between Richard and her married neighbor Patrick, with whom she’s thinking of having an affair, although she’s also thinking of ending her affair with Robert. As the novel moves forward, Michèle makes some decisions, defers others, and allows some decisions to be made for her. In other words, her life proceeds as lives do, although hers is more dramatic than most.

Michèle is a woman of moods. She wants to sleep with Patrick and then she doesn’t and then she does and so on. She hates her mother and then loves her and then hates her and so son. Sometimes she thinks she should change her ways; other time she looks forward to having more “unusual adventures” (i.e., sleeping with married men). Eventually (and I write this as a warning to sensitive readers) she indulges in rape fantasies that become realities.

There were several times when I thought (as I suspect many readers will), “Why is she doing this?” But it’s clear that Michèle doesn’t always know why she behaves as she does. The closest she comes to an answer is, “sometimes people would do just about anything to feel a tiny bit better.” And “just about anything” can include behavior that might seem rewarding in the moment even if, viewed later with a more rational mind, the behavior is self-destructive. As she tells her cat, “It’s a little complicated to explain,” probably because we can’t explain what we don’t understand.

To her credit, even when the circumstances of her life have victimized her, Michèle does not play the role of victim. She uses adversity to learn truths about herself, not all of which are pleasant. She moves forward, and whether those moves are healthy or not, they are preferable to wallowing in self-pity. Michèle might not be an exemplary person, but she isn't a bad person. Her character is a reminder that people respond to difficult childhoods in many different ways. It would be easy to judge Michèle, but she doesn’t deserve to be judged. All of that makes her a strong literary character.


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