Do you ever want to just play hookey? To abandon all your commitments and just be for a day? Of course you do. And that’s precisely what four siblings do in French Leave, Anna Gavalda’s short novella (only 108 pages) just translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions.
As the book begins, Garance, the narrator and younger sister, is hitching a ride to a cousin’s wedding with her brother Simon and his unbearable wife Carine. After older sister Lola joins the group, the three siblings decide to ditch the wedding (and Carine) and drive out to visit younger brother Vincent. The four spend the day and a night together and then return to their ordinary lives. That’s it.
But that simple day was special:
What we were experiencing at that moment—something all four of us were aware of—was a windfall. Borrowed time, an interlude, a moment of grace. A few hours stolen from other people…
For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hookey? To thumb our noses at it? Or make our little honorarium on the side? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair?
All four siblings are close, but their lives are separate, and perhaps that separateness will cause them to grow further apart. Each one has made choices the others don’t understand. This one day together enables them to stop, breathe, and reflect on those choices. Garance notes that it will probably get more and more difficult for them to step away from everyday life, and it’s true—it is difficult, especially in these days of constant connectivity. But we need these days (or at least I do) to recharge and perhaps even reconsider what we’re doing on every other day.
For the four siblings, this time of reflection doesn’t lead to any great revelations. A couple of the siblings make small steps that could lead to big changes, but that’s all. For me, that’s part of the book’s appeal. A single day like this one is unlikely to dramatically change a whole life, but that doesn’t keep it from being important. And this day is important. It’s an opportunity to celebrate the kinds of pleasures that all four siblings have learned, ever since their childhood, to treasure. Pleasures such as,
Songs with refrains on the tip of our tongues. Messages we’ve kept, blockbusters we’ve loved, gummy bears and scratched vinyl records. Our childhood, our solitude, our first emotions and projects for the future. All the hours we stayed up late, all the doors held open, Buster Keaton’s antics. Armand Robin’s brave letter to the Gestapo and Michel Leiris’s battering ram of clouds.
And more and more and more.
Carine, the sister-in-law, is set up as a sort of foil to the others. She represents everything they need to get away from. She’s all about structure and responsibility and sticking to a plan. But there’s a lovely moment late in the book when Simon talks about their marriage, and it becomes clear how difficult the siblings’ free-spirited pleasures can be for some and how that difficulty might cause the more structured people to lash out. There’s something in this that casts an ever-so-slight note of sadness over the story. Will the siblings be able to preserve their happy attitude? Or, as Garance suggests in the quote near the top of this review, will they soon find the call of the responsibility too strong to allow themselves to break free from it, even once in a while? Must growing up kill pleasure? I don’t think so, but the temptation to cast pleasure aside is strong. That’s why we all need to play hookey and just enjoy ourselves once in a while.