Literary Saloon
Site of Review.

Trying to meet all your book preview and review needs.

the Best
the Rest
Review Index




to e-mail us:

support the site

buy us books !
Amazon wishlist

In Association with Amazon.com

In association with Amazon.com - UK

In association with Amazon.ca - Canada



the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Vie Française
(A French Life)

Jean-Paul Dubois

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Vie Française

Title: Vie Française
Author: Jean-Paul Dubois
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 276 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Vie Française - US
A French Life - UK
Vie Française - Canada
Une vie française - Canada
Une vie française - France
Ein französisches Leben - Deutschland
  • French title: Une vie française
  • US title: Vie Française
  • UK title: A French Life
  • Translated by Linda Coverdale
  • Awarded the Prix Femina, 2004

- Return to top of the page -

Our Assessment:

B : solid writing, decent idea(s), but doesn't really come together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 5/9/2007 Gerry Feehily
New Statesman . 23/8/2007 Natasha Tripney
The NY Sun . 11/7/2007 Jules Treneer
The NY Times . 10/7/2007 Richard Eder
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/9/2007 William Deresiewicz
The Spectator . 1/1/2005 Anita Brookner
TLS . 17/8/2007 Henri Astier

  Review Consensus:

  Has some qualities, probably not enough

  From the Reviews:
  • "Just as in the film Forrest Gump, this history feels like borrowed profundity. That said, A French Life is a very likeable book, served up in English by the impeccable translator Linda Coverdale." - Gerry Feehily, The Independent

  • "The novel works better as a study of one man’s emotional stagnation. Blick’s self-absorption does start to grate, but for the most part this is countered by the humour and insight in the writing." - Natasha Tripney, New Statesman

  • "Much of it reads like the memoirs of its middle-aged narrator. Few scenes last longer than a page, and are spaced by lengthy explanations crowded with philosophical posturing. At times, Mr. Dubois's vignettes are enlivened by deftly efficient depiction. (…) Unfortunately, Mr. Dubois never takes us beyond a stale mixture of simplistic anti-globalism and armchair nihilism. One suspects he holds his character in too high of an esteem to prick his certainties. The novel cries out for a more concrete worldview." - Jules Treneer, The New York Sun

  • "Vie Française, as the title suggests, is a novel about France. As a novel it is decidedly ragged, but its observations about France and the French achieve, at their best, a sharp insight. (…) With a few exceptions, the characters and situations in Vie are impaled rather than drawn. Even when the author does try to draw, what usually comes out is a numerical score. (…) At its best, Vie hauls us out of a cliché -- France is different -- to a more complex appreciation of the difference." - Richard Eder, The New York Times

  • "French life ? This novel feels more like the story of one very tired generation. (...) (T)he novel runs out of gas pretty early. (...) Paul’s adult life turns into a long, flat, featureless expanse only occasionally enlivened by narrative contrivances and essentially disconnected from the larger currents of national life." - William Deresiewicz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Punctuated by presidencies from de Gaulle to Chirac, this is in effect a rite of passage novel and at the same time an autobiographical reflection on what it was like to be young, and then not so young, from 1958 to the present day. (…) Une Vie Française finally attains a simplicity and indeed a dignity which might satisfy that correspondent who was moved to write to the newspaper complaining of a lack of energy in what publishers had to offer readers like herself." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "A French Life was successful in France because it was just that: it held a mirror up to a nation. Paul's running commentaries on current events may sound like the rants of a barfly, but they are believable. (...) The question is, can the novel have universal appeal ? Despite an elegant translation into (American) English, this is dubious. The characters, with the possible exception of the narrator, are mere shadows." - Henri Astier, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

- Return to top of the page -

The complete review's Review:

       Vie Française presents 'A French Life' (as the British title has it) as Paul Blick, born in 1950 (like the author), describes his. The book is divided into sections covering the terms of the French presidents since Charles De Gaulle (1958 to 1969) -- serving well, in a book that is meant to be as much about France as about an individual, as a constant reminder of national mediocrity over the past five decades in its parade of exemplars (Poher ! Mitterand ! Chirac !)
       Blick may seem an odd choice for a novel that is meant to hold a mirror up to France (and there's no doubt that that is what it is): "I have never voted", he states proudly, for example, and he is largely indifferent to politics (though labeled by everyone -- including himself -- as a soft sort of lefty). (Of course, he also states similarly proudly: "I haven't worn underwear since I was little".) But as a sort of outsider who only grudgingly plays along with most of society's games he offers a useful perspective, untainted by the need or desire to live up to the usual expectations du jour. He half-heartedly plays along in the clashes of May 1968, manages to evade military duty, and even only agrees to get married very reluctantly (his wedding-day a very nicely rendered scene, showing just what an arsehole this guy is).
       While his academic career may be typical for his generation -- he coasted through university doing essentially nothing, and even then only got a completely useless degree in sociology -- he also is happy enough to retreat into being a stay-at-home dad when he gets married and has kids, letting his wife be the breadwinner (a still highly unusual arrangement at that time). He's not much of a people-person, glad to avoid them where he can, even only managing to really engage with the kids when they're very small and all their needs need to be taken care of by an adult. His wife complains:

     The only thing you care about is not growing up, acting like a child with your children, and escaping responsibilities
       But she's got it wrong: Blick isn't immature, and the one thing he is self-sacrificing about is family. His meagre success in life comes as a caregiver: first his kids when they are young, and then his ailing mother, as well as later, once again, his daughter. It's integrating into society -- including working nine to five, bothering about political questions -- that's beyond him.
       He becomes obsessed with photography, but can't photograph people. Here his wife has him pegged better: his work: "had no connection to the real world, and was singularly lacking in life". Among Dubois' many dubious choices is in allowing Blick to become very successful as a photographer: two books of his, of photographs of trees, become absurdly successful bestsellers, making him a fortune. (Fortunately, Dubois also has Blick lose his fortune, in a slightly more realistic way.) Blick even gets a call from one of those French presidents, who wants Blick to photograph him, but Blick declines: "I can't photograph human beings."
       Dubois' French representative is a very odd duck. Sometimes the Blick-character is very effective, especially in his youth. Dubois rarely gets it entirely right, but occasionally he comes close, such as Blick stating:
     I have no idea where I was and what I was doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. On the other hand, I remember perfectly the family meal on October 8, 1967, when the television announced the death of Ernesto Che Guevara.
       Blick's parents, and his wife and her family, offer a glimpse of French economic and (entrepreneurial) working life, but Blick (and Dubois) can't be bothered with many of the intricacies of that, so the picture of French economic and business life is a bit simplistic (though there a several nice twists around wife Anna's jacuzzi business).
       More problematic is the often episodic progression of the novel, the way Dubois forces in certain events and anecdotes without always linking them cleanly with the rest of the story. Blick seeks out a psychoanalyst -- more because he's in desperate need of a conversation partner than for mental health-help -- and becomes buddies with the man he chooses (they even go to some rugby matches together), but it's a short-lived relationship, Dubois ending it with an abrupt jolt; it's one of the few really surprising twists in the book, but, once the shock wears off, not a satisfying one -- indeed, it feels like an artificial sensation, thrown in by the author simply to demonstrate the power authors have: they can do anything in their books. Overly-dramatic events around election time as he moves from one chapter (and presidential term) to the next also feel far too forced.
       Dubois writes well: the book reads easily and well, and if Blick isn't always very sympathetic, there's enough variety (and curiosity about: what next ?) to hold the reader's interest. There's some humour here too, such as when Blick finally has to get a regular job and goes down to the public employment office (he's advised to join a training programme, "To reorient you toward fields where labor is still in demand: the building trades for one" ...): it's a silly scene (though revealing about France, that a man with Blick's background would even consider going to the state employment agency) and doesn't really belong, but it's pulled of amusingly enough (and readers have put up with so many needless scenes by that point ...) that it doesn't even seem that out of place.
       Part of the problem with the book is also that Blick (and Dubois) take things too seriously -- but not consistently. When Dubois isn't trying too hard to send a message the book is appealing enough -- but then he can't resist having Blick state things such as:
     I am struck by how the whole episode allowed me to measure the futility of the modern world, the outrageously busy universe bristling with sensors, charging blindly at the phantoms of its certainties, deleting its mistakes as if they were mere glitches, never thinking twice, disdaining deliberation, forgetful, amnesic, and loutish.
       Readers, presumably, are struck by something else -- as Dubois tries to hammer home his points, not understanding that if he needs to make his point like this he hasn't made it very well.
       (Blick's pomposity can also get to be a bit much, as when he claims in the second Mitterand-administration: "Things were gradually working themselves out. Except for me and Salman Rushdie.")
       Vie Française does give some insight into the France of the past half-century, but it's not a complete picture, the awkward protagonist simply not the best guide. Dubois has decent ideas, and presents quite a bit of this quite well, but it doesn't come together very well and feels like a cobbled-together novel (cum life-story, cum national portrait). Readable, and even somewhat enjoyable, it is also ultimately disappointing.

- Return to top of the page -


Vie Française: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

- Return to top of the page -

About the Author:

       French author Jean-Paul Dubois was born in 1950.

- Return to top of the page -

© 2007-2008 the complete review

Main | the New | the Best | the Rest | Review Index | Links