Sometimes there’s no accounting for taste, including my own. I could come up with a list of reasons that I’m unenthusiastic about Fatale, the J.P. Manchette novel newly translated from the French, but I’m not sure any of those reasons are particularly good ones. The novel is entertaining enough, but it just didn’t do much for me. So let’s see if I can figure it out. I’ll start with the story and see where I end up.

When we first meet her, the novel’s titular fatale shoots a man dead while he’s out hunting and walk away. She gets on a train and spends some time almost literally rolling in a pile of money:

She went on eating and drinking and progressively lost control of herself. She leaned over, still chewing, and opened the briefcase and pulled out fistfuls of banknotes and rubbed them against her belly streaked with sweat and against her breasts and her armpits and between her legs and behind her knees. Tears rolled down her cheeks even as she shook with laughter and kept masticating. She bent over to sniff the lukewarm choucroute and she rubbed banknotes against her lips and teeth and raised her glass and dipped the tip of her nose in the champagne. And here in this luxury compartment of this luxury train her nostrils were assailed at once by the luxurious scent of the champagne and the foul odor of the filthy banknotes and the foul odor of the choucroute, which smelt like piss and sperm.

This is an exciting bit of writing! This fatale, who soon takes on the name of Aimée Joubert, seems to be all about pleasure, and evidently, her pleasure is in what she can get for herself. She may not be likable, but she seems like an entertaining character to follow.

When Aimée disembarks from the train in a new town, she puts a new scheme in motion. She gets to know the people of the town and finds out their secrets. All of this is somehow meant to serve herself, but her plan takes a while to become clear to the reader.

I think the scheme itself is part of the problem. It’s clever enough, but not a stunner by any means. And there are so many characters involved, none of whom come across as much more than sketches. The book felt like the skeleton of a better, more interesting story. Even Aimée, with her early promise of reveling in the id, seems too distant from the reader. There’s just no flesh on these bones. Toward the end, we get a little bit of back story, but it’s unconvincing and just a little trite. Plus, it turns Aimée into a muddle—is she a crusader for pleasure or against assholes? She could be both, but that’s a lot of motivation to pack into a mere 100 pages when you’ve got a complex crime plot to unfold. Neither motive ends up feeling authentic.

The book closes with a spate of comic book–esque violence that (I hope) the author doesn’t mean for us to take seriously. But to me, it didn’t feel fun either. It seems like it should read like the denouement of a Tarantino film, but I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe I’m losing my taste for violent entertainment of this type, or maybe this kind of thing works better for me on the screen than on the page. I did enjoy Aimée’s final declaration that closes the book, but I’m not sure that the book itself justifies the bold statement at the end.

But I’m also not sure of my own opinion. I possibly could have loved this in a different mood. The flaws are the kind of thing I can easily overlook if I’m really into a book. It’s short anyway, so if you’re at all interested, you won’t waste much time if you give it a try.

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18 Responses to Fatale

  1. Iris says:

    I often feel hesitant to post a review of this kind of book, you know, the ones that make you doubt whether it was your mood instead of the quality of the book that made you dislike it. However, going by what you said here, I do think I will skip reading this particular NYRB title.

  2. Deb says:

    Oh, the writer lost me with a woman rubbing money all over her body. What a dismal pop-culture cliche. Blech!

  3. Such a great first line! I should probably make it into a t-shirt for myself!

  4. Steph says:

    It is always hard when you encounter a book that you wind up feeling lukewarm towards and you have the feeling that if you had only read it at a different time, you might have really enjoyed it. These days if I find I’m not feeling a book pretty early on but I suspect I might like it more while in a different mood, I’m quick to put it aside and try something else. While life is too short for bad books, there are so many good books out there’s no point wasting time on one that just isn’t going to do it for me.

    • Teresa says:

      This book was so short (just 100 pages) that by the time I was sure I wasn’t feeling it, I was nearly done. At that point, “returning were as tedious as go o’er” and all that.

  5. Jenny says:

    “This is an exciting bit of writing” — is that what the kids are calling it these days? :)

    Allow me to recommend choucroute, though, against all obstacles this book may have put in your way.

    • Teresa says:

      Ha! I actually liked that bit of writing. It’s so unapologetically excessive. If the rest of the book had kept that wild tone, I would have had fun with it. But we never get inside her head like that again.

  6. Jenny says:

    I haven’t reliably loved the NYRB books I’ve read, even though I deeply wish to love them all. Mood makes a huge difference to my reading, but usually I don’t read a book all the way through, feel meh about it, and reread it later and love it. Usually if I’m going to reread and love a book, it’s a book I didn’t finish the first time through.

    • Teresa says:

      I have gone back and reread books and loved them, but usually there’s a gap of several years. Even if I liked this better a second time, I’m not sure I’d ever love it, so I doubt I’ll give it another try.

  7. Vasilly says:

    After reading an earlier review of this book, I was ready to run out and buy it. Now I think I’ll just check it out from the library.

    • Teresa says:

      Most people who’ve read it seem to have liked it, so it’s definitely worth trying, but perhaps the library first is the right move.

  8. Marie says:

    Yeah, I think the library is the right move for this book too although I think I liked it more than you. :-)

  9. Danielle says:

    I read a lot about how great this book was in French, and how excited people were to get to read it, but very few reviews after it was published. Your review doesn’t make me no longer want to read it, but I doubt I’ll be rushing out to buy it in the next month. Although the money and choucroute scene did make me want to shower haha

    • Teresa says:

      That is telling, when there’s lot of talk before people can get a book and then… silence. The small number of reviews I’ve seen have been positive, though.

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