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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Cleaning Woman

Christian Oster

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To purchase A Cleaning Woman

Title: A Cleaning Woman
Author: Christian Oster
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 197 pages
Original in: French
Availability: A Cleaning Woman - US
A Cleaning Woman - UK
A Cleaning Woman - Canada
Une femme de ménage - Canada
Une femme de ménage - France
Meine Putzfrau - Deutschland
  • French title: Une femme de ménage
  • Translated by Mark Polizotti
  • Une femme de ménage was made into a film in 2002, directed by Claude Berri and with Émilie Dequenne as Laura

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Our Assessment:

B : fine, but not enough done with it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 25/1/2001 Daniel Rondeau
L'Humanité . 25/1/2001 Jean-Claude Lebrun
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 18/3/2003 Thomas Laux
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2003 Joseph Dewey
World Lit. Today . Spring/2001 Bettina L. Knapp

  Review Consensus:

  Oster has a nice, humorous touch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Une femme de ménage est un livre lent, où tout glisse facilement, en fait avec une aisance assez acrobatique, et quelques surprenantes accélérations (...). Mais la qualité inattendue de cette tapisserie au petit point, c'est l'humour." - Daniel Rondeau, L'Express

  • "De cette sorte de contexte minimal, Christian Oster tire un récit pétillant de drôlerie. Le narrateur décrit en effet avec un humour ému cette impavide Laura et nous livre ses propres impressions embrouillées.(...) Christian Oster possède un art irrésistible de métamorphoser le quotidien, en jouant sur les angles de vue et sur les mots." - Jean-Claude Lebrun, L'Humanité

  • "Oster here fleshes out this object of affection and creates a fragile, fascinating sort of love quadrangle as both Jacques and the cleaning woman have hearts haunted by lingering ghosts. Indeed, Oster examines the uneasy line separating passion and obsession. The attraction here is far more erotic, but that never becomes the saving impulse." - Joseph Dewey, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "The narrator in Une femme de menage, endowed with a twentieth-century Cartesian mind, is forever thinking, rationalizing, and weighing one possibility against another, in a humdrum existence that centers on his wants, comforts, and obsessive need for order." - Bettina L. Knapp, World Literature Today

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.

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The complete review's Review:

       Neil Young sang about it years ago: "A maid. / A man needs a maid." He knew:

It's hard to make that change
When life and love
turns strange.
And old.
       Jacques, who is about fifty, narrates A Cleaning Woman. He broke up with his wife, Constance, six months before this story begins. After half a year his apartment is a mess, and he finally takes the step of hiring a cleaning woman. A young woman named Laura posted a xeroxed piece of paper at a local pharmacy, offering her services as a cleaning woman and babysitter, and pretty much on a whim (though also out of some necessity) he called and then, after meeting her, hired her.
       Jacques doesn't say much about his work and he doesn't seem to have much of a social life: the book focusses almost entirely on his changing relationship with the cleaning woman. He has some friends he's in vague contact with, but Laura is a different sort of intrusion in his life. He's not entirely comfortable with it (at any point), and yet he's obsessed by it: how he should treat her, how he should behave in front of her.
       Laura isn't the greatest cleaning woman either. Jacques admittedly "wasn't yet entirely sure I deserved to have my housework done perfectly", but, in any case, Laura offers only "a cleanliness for myopics" ("it looked clean if you squinted"). But Jacques, of course, needs (and longs) for something else entirely -- not that he's willing to admit it to himself (or the reader). But he hires Laura to come twice a week, even though once suffices, and when her boyfriend kicks her out Jacques lets her stay at his place, despite it being an obvious inconvenience.
       Their relationship becomes a sexual one, but Jacques remains wary:
Knowledge of each other's bodies pushed me irresistibly towards exchange, and I wondered how far we could go like this.
       Jacques claims: "We were feeling an absolute need not to love each other madly", but it is he that is particularly concerned, and unwilling or unable to give in completely to the other.
       Laura remains more of cipher, revealed only through Jacques' eyes -- a Jacques who doesn't want to admit how much she comes to mean to him.. Only rarely are her feelings seen or heard:
The important thing is that we get along.
    Yeah, but it's not love, Laura said. I'd have liked it to be love.
       There are a few issues and events that also play a role: Laura's mother is dying, Constance resurfaces. Jacques tries to flee with Laura to the seashore, to visit a friend, but there is no escape, the affair winding up much as it must.

       Oster relates Jacques' story well. His loneliness and then his infatuation are nicely conveyed, as nothing is presented too obviously. Laura, too, is a convincing object of desire -- and herself a damaged soul in need of a hold (which Jacques is, ultimately, not able to provide). But after a promising beginning the novel doesn't quite convince to the end: Jacques and Laura's flight ultimately piles a bit too much on, and isn't nearly as nicely handled as the earlier domestic scenes.
       A good read, if not a completely sustained effort.

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A Cleaning Woman: Reviews: Une femme de ménage - the film: Other books by Christian Oster under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Christian Oster was born in 1949.

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