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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Les prénoms épicènes

Amélie Nothomb

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To purchase Les prénoms épicènes

Title: Les prénoms épicènes
Author: Amélie Nothomb
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018
Length: 155 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Les prénoms épicènes - Canada
Les prénoms épicènes - France
Ambivalenz - Deutschland
I nomi epiceni - Italia
  • Les prénoms épicènes has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : elaborate revenge-tale that falters some in its shifting focus, but prime Nothomb for much of the way

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Devoir . 22/9/2018 Manon Dumais
L'Express . 7/9/2018 Marianne Payot
Le Figaro . 6/9/2018 Alice Develey
L'Obs . 20/9/2018 Jérôme Garcin
Le Parisien A- 27/9/2018 Sandrine Bajos

  From the Reviews:
  • "Vingt-septième roman de la prolifique dame excentrique, Les prénoms épicènes, malgré ses qualités indéniables, souffre quelque peu de la comparaison avec le précédent, Frappe-toi le coeur. (...) Amélie Nothomb parvient à titiller le lecteur et à le garder captif en semant çà et là quelques indices sur la vraie nature de ce couple parfait en apparence, dysfonctionnel dans les faits." - Manon Dumais, Le Devoir

  • "Du Nothomb pur sucre." - Marianne Payot, L'Express

  • "(L)a littérature d'Amélie Nothomb est immuable. Elle est aussi annuelle qu'une rente, courte sur pattes, très champagnisée, trop maquillée, et toujours décevante. C'est de la littérature de pince-fesses." - Jérôme Garcin, L'Obs

  • "Un conte cruel très nothombien qui se dévore d'une traite" - Sandrine Bajos, Le Parisien

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:

[Note: Les prénoms épicènes has not yet been translated into English; this review is based on the French original; all translations from the French are mine.]

       Les prénoms épicènes is the story of a very elaborate act of vengeance -- vengeance, rather than just mere revenge, as the character who dedicates his life to it insists when finally called on to explain it:

     — Une revanche, en somme.
     — Non. Une vengeance.

[    — So, an act of revenge.
     — No. An act of venegeance.]
       The stage is set in a brief prologue chapter, in which twenty-five-year-old Reine tells the man she's been together with for the past five years that she is moving on. They just made passionate love, and still lie in each other's arms, but Reine is all ready for the next stage in her life: she's marrying Jean-Louis in two days. He's been made the number two at a huge electronics firm, setting the foundations for a promising future -- "la grande vie" -- in the place of Reine's dreams, Paris, and her longtime boyfriend apparently just can't compete with that.
       The man she abandons is furious, and vows to get back at her. He dismisses the thought of killing her; instead, he wants her to suffer in the way he is suffering.
       The time and place are not specified, and the man's name is not revealed, but it's soon clear that the story continues in the same French backwater -- Brest -- and time (1970). Another twenty-five-year-old woman, Dominique, is picked up out of the blue by Claude, a confident apparent high-flier who is now setting up a subsidiary of a local company in Paris, who proposes to her on what is essentially their first date. And while it isn't confirmed until well into the novel, it doesn't take much to figure out that Claude is the jilted lover of the novel's first scene.
       But what the hell is Claude up to ?
       Primed to expect vengeance, readers are kept in quite some suspense. Seducing and marrying Dominique seems part of the plan -- and is soon successfully accomplished -- but to what end ? Claude is in some ways an odd character, and some of what he does seems dubious -- indeed, Dominique's first instincts are not to trust him, but he wins her over (rather easily, with a bottle of Chanel N°5) -- and he really does become a successful businessman in Paris (at the firm Dominique worked for), and he and Dominique make for a relatively happy couple. But obviously something is up ..... As it turns out, Claude is playing the long game. The really long game.
       The first real tension in the marriage comes when the couple has difficulty conceiving a child. It becomes a matter of increasing urgency for Claude -- but he is also completely dismissive of Dominique's suggestion that they might, for example, adopt. Finally, Dominique does become pregnant -- but after all the build-up, Claude is oddly put off by the actual child.
       It is a daughter, and they call her Épicène -- an idea that had appealed to both of them. As Claude pointed out, both he and his wife, Dominique, have given names that don't reveal their sex: the names alone don't reveal whether they are male or female. Dominique even knows the term for that: theirs are: "prénoms épicènes", which she attributes to Ben Johnson's play, Epicœne; or, the Silent Woman (in which a boy is disguised as a woman). From there they make the leap to deciding they will name their child -- regardless of whether it's a boy or girl -- Épicène, noting that: "C'est le prénom le plus épicène du monde" ('It's the most epicene first name in the world'), after all.
       Readers familiar with Nothomb's work will be aware of her penchant for giving her characters striking and very unusual names, but it's a shame that she doesn't really utilize or do much with the ambivalence/duality suggested by this one in this novel; like her parents, Épicène's gender/identification is never in question and never an issue; she just happens to have a name that doesn't reveal it. This is typical of the way Les prénoms épicènes falls just a bit short, coming up with and dangling an intriguing concept but not doing enough with it.
       Claude's almost visceral reaction to Épicène, keeping his distance and not showing her any affection, is striking and a bit baffling. Here he was so eager to have a child, but then he shows so little interest in it. Dominique wonders whether he is disappointed it wasn't a boy, but that's not it either. And he even tries to push Dominique to have more children.
       Vengeance presumably still hovers somewhere in the background, but with the appearance of Épicène the novel shifts, and she becomes much more the focus. She is a very bright child, but rather closed off. At elementary school she makes one close friend, Samia -- whose busy and loving family also reveals to Épicène a very different domestic world -- but Claude eventually manages to sabotage that friendship and, along with the family's move to the nobler rive gauche -- the VIIe arrondissement -- leaves Épicène almost completely isolated. She comes to hate her parents -- her father, in particular, but then also the mother who sides with him -- and the household she is trapped in. At age eleven she does the math: "Encore sept années à tirer dans cette prison. Comment vais-je tenir ?" ('Another seven years in this prison. How will I manage ?'). She adopts the strategy of the coelacanth, able to endure in a hostile environment by basically shutting down for the duration, almost dead to the world until the danger or unpleasantness is over. Of course, to her parents and teachers that basically is just an extreme example of adolescent retreat.
       Claude continues to have ambitions: the move to the better neighborhood and sending Épicène to a fancy school are part of it. But he's failed to make what he tells Dominique is the essential contact, vital for his career, with the unapproachable monsieur Cléry -- "La famille Cléry, c'est l'équivalent moderne du salon des Guermantes" ('The Cléry family, they're the modern equivalents of the salon of the Guermantes'). But his three daughters do attend the same school as Épicène, and if Dominique can befriend their mother .....
       It's more than halfway into the story before Reine resurfaces, and even then Claude's master plan is not immediately clear -- but finally he reveals what he's been up to. It's an interesting concept of vengeance, but doesn't exactly pan out as he planned; indeed, it ruins what there is of his life, including with Dominique finally coming to her senses and leaving him, taking Épicène back to live with her parents in Brest and returning to a job at her old company. Claude recedes into the background, wasting away by himself; only a decade on, when he is on his death-bed, does he reach out and ask the now adult Épicène to visit him - leading to the novel's other harsh act of vengeance.
       Épicène and her mother fare well and happily apart from Claude, with Épicène maturing into a happy student and then adult. It takes a while for Dominique to get over the way she was used, but even she finds peace in the end.
       Claude's peculiar vengeance is an interesting idea -- insanely, single-mindedly elaborate, and both rational, on some level, and clearly near-pointless. When it is revealed, the air rather goes out of the novel -- or at least this aspect of the novel -- since it doesn't have the hoped-for effect, making Claude an almost entirely disposable character at that point (which is also how he is then treated).
       As it turns out, the most interesting aspect of his grand plan is his explanation of why he turned away from his daughter, the shock when he first saw her: as becomes clear, it was his crossroad, the point at which he could have decided on an entirely different life -- one truly his own, with a happy little family. Instead, he opted for vengeance, staying true to his original course -- at the cost of everything else. It did not pay off. But Nothomb doesn't mine this crux of the father-daughter relationship for all it is worth: she shows their mutual dislike, but, beyond eventually a brief explanation for what lies behind it, doesn't consider it more fully.
       Nothomb is pulled towards making Épicène the central figure in the novel -- and, as always, she captures troubled and difficult childhood and adolescence superbly, so one can see why she is drawn to this -- but the hook of Claude's vengeance-idea would require a greater focus on the adults in the room. And Nothomb does do some of this well: Claude and Dominique's odd courtship; Dominique's friendship with Mme. Cléry. But she simply doesn't follow through sufficiently with the full consequences and meaning of Claude's deeply misguided but fascinatingly extreme idea for how to get vengeance.
       Les prénoms épicènes is still a quite enjoyable read. Nothomb's small scenes and dialogue, and the shifts in her characters, as well as, in particular, her portrait of Épicène, are sharp and good. And she's always good for a jarring surprise -- as with Épicène's final meeting with her father. It just doesn't all fit together, the inspired original idea lost in its realization (perhaps appropriately, given how Claude's concept (doesn't) work out ...), all the more frustratingly because of the flashes of promise to the story along the way.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 December 2019

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Les prénoms épicènes: Reviews: Amelie Nothomb: Other books by Amélie Nothomb under review: Books about Amélie Nothomb under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Amélie Nothomb was born in Kobe, Japan, August 13, 1967.

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