Book Discussion at Epiphany, "The Wine of Solitude" by Irène Némirovsky
Irène Némirovsky is a well known French writer who became popular in the United States after the posthumous publication of her book Suite Francaise. The book group has read her work once before and decided to revisit her for our September meeting. This time around we read The Wine of Solitude.
At least semi-autobiographical, the book tells the story of Hélène who grows up in a home with a loving but distant father and a mother who seems to have little to no interest in her child. It is this lack of maternal bond that fuels the novel as we follow Hélène from the age of about 11 until 21. When her father loses his job, seemingly because of her mother flaunting their money, he takes one in which he becomes rich but that keeps him away from his family. He also develops a gambling habit. Her mother takes this as an opportunity to take in a much younger lover and this along with some other unkind interactions between mother and daughter early on causes Hélène to feel only hate and anger towards her mother. As she grows Hélène experiences various events such as the loss of her French governess who played the role of mother for most of her formative years, moving constantly and the disintegration of her parent's marriage.This all culminates in an attempt by Hélène to seek what she sees as the ultimate form of revenge against her mother.
The novel is slim at only 250 pages and despite the somber subject matter a fast read. Némirovsky's writing is concise and she does a good job of giving insight into Hélène's emotional life. We always know what the character is thinking and feeling, sometimes to the detriment of the story. That is because at times everything is about her feelings and while time passes we never get insight into any other aspects of her life besides the emotional. The book also ends without resolution so that could be a negative for some readers. If one views it as more of a biography then one can argue that the ending is what happens in the author's life. But for those that see it as fiction this might be a frustrating aspect of the novel.
The book group previously read Némirovsky's Suite Francaise but everyone agreed that this story was better written. Many people loved her descriptions of the various landscapes whether it was winter in Russia or spring in France. The author was able to truly capture the atmosphere of the time through these scenes. What was lacking in these descriptions was the actual turmoil taking place around the family, most notably the Russian Revolution. There is some vague mention of events but never any real information. For some this made sense because the book is told through the eyes of a child. Others felt this would have given the story a bit more depth. There was a definite consensus on the fact that the main detriment to the story was the extent to which Hélène was solely focused on her resentment towards her mother. Any and every action on the part of the main character is somehow related to the animosity she feels. Perhaps due to this fact some people felt it didn't seem like the character ever aged because her feelings were stagnant. There was also a comment on the fact that when she is young her thoughts seem to be that of someone older. This could be attributed to the fact that the story it is indeed biographical and therefore the author was unable to revert her own thoughts to that of a younger age. One member descibed the story as one you either really enjoy or struggle to get through. For most it was enjoyable and would be recommended.
If you have already enjoyed the above novel or are looking for something similar, here are some suggestions: