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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Life, Only Better

Anna Gavalda

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

To purchase Life, Only Better

Title: Life, Only Better
Author: Anna Gavalda
Genre: Novellas
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 210 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Life, Only Better - US
Life, Only Better - UK
Life, Only Better - Canada
La vie en mieux - Canada
Life, Only Better - India
La vie en mieux - France
La vita in meglio - Italia
  • French title: La vie en mieux
  • Translated by Tina Kover

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Our Assessment:

B : snappy but sappy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Express . 5/3/2014 Alexandre Fillon
Le Figaro . 13/3/2014 Françoise Dargent
The NY Times . 26/11/2015 John Williams
la Repubblica . 24/5/2015 Fabio Gambaro

  From the Reviews:
  • "Anna Gavalda, elle, a un don inouï de la formule et de l'image. Une manière unique de parler du monde d'aujourd'hui avec une foule de détails justes. De décrire le quotidien qui vous fait parfois plier le dos tout en montrant qu'on peut décoller du sol si tant est que l'on ait envie d'avoir des ailes." - Alexandre Fillon, L'Express

  • "Il n'est jamais trop tard pour changer, explique l'auteur qui a repris les attributs de sa panoplie gavaldienne, combattant le cynisme ambiant et pourfendant la restauration des bonnes vieilles relations sociales, la simplicité sans chichi, l'apéro autour d'un bon vin, le repas roboratif sur la table de la cuisine, et galipettes, si affinité." - Françoise Dargent, Le Figaro

  • "Both stories have a sentimental streak, but Ms. Gavalda, a best-selling author in her native France, puts them across with charm." - John Williams, The New York Times

  • "Con il suo impareggiabile talento di narratrice capace di resti- tuire alle perfezione le molte sfumature del reale, la scrittrice francese dà voce alla solitudine e all'insoddisfazione di due giovani come tanti." - Fabio Gambaro, la Repubblica

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:

       Life, Only Better is a diptych, two novellas (or very long stories) covering similar ground, each featuring a character in their mid-twenties who is in a rut and suddenly turns things around. Their situations aren't the same, but the real basics are -- as summed up by Yann in the second piece:

The thing is, I don't know where I am in my life. And I don't mean in life, I mean in my life. My age, my purposeless youth, my degree that impresses no one, my bullshit job.
       Mathilde features Mathilde Salmon, twenty-four years old and still on the books at university (mainly for the student discounts) but having abandoned her art history studies. Her brother-in-law runs a web-design company and pays her too much -- to leave fake comments and reviews at sites, under countless different pseudonyms -- for her to quit this cushy and easy (if slightly unsavory) job. She parties and sleeps around a lot, drinking herself silly and hooking up, but is without any sort of meaningful relationships. One afternoon she loses her handbag -- and the ten thousand euros her flatmates entrusted her with -- and she doesn't know what to do.
       Mathilde doesn't face too much of a dilemma, at least not for too long: someone found the bag and returns it to her -- complete with all the cash. Problem solved, and life can go on as always -- empty and unsatisfying though it was and is ..... . Except that the man who returned the bag, a cook named Jean-Baptiste, whom she initially finds off-putting actually makes quite an impression on her.
       When he returns the bag Jean-Baptiste has a briefcase with him too, secured to a belt loop with a chain: as he explains to Mathilde: "if you really care about something in life, do whatever you can not to lose it".
       Are the two fated to be together ? Do -- or will -- they care so much they'll do anything not to lose each other ? Well, at first it certainly doesn't seem so. As in a (weak) comedy of errors, they fail to (re)connect.
       Eventually Mathilde realizes that, aside from everything else in the bag -- her ID, her stash of cash -- Jean-Baptiste also found and apparently read a letter from a former lover of hers, a writer, and suddenly she sees everything in a different light, and feels a greater, even obsessive sense of urgency.
       How far will she go to track down Jean-Baptiste ? Pretty far.
       Is her quest a hopeless one ? Please ! with Anna Gavalda at the helm, you know exactly where this is headed.
       The second story, Yann, is narrated by the twenty-six-year-old Yann Carcarec who has a worthless degree and has had sleepless nights since childhood as he has been made to feel more and more guilty about contributing, with every movement he makes, it would seem, to everything from global warming to the destruction of nature. He has the modern, rich, industrial nation white man's (or man-child's) guilt, ashamed of: "having been born white, greedy, lazy, a colonizer, an informer, and an accomplice".
       Yann is a demonstrator -- but not against the system or anything like that; no, he's:
[A] demonstrator of little Korean robots designed for domestic, recreational, and household use by domestic, recreational and household classes.
       Needless to say, it's not his dream-job. He does have a girlfriend, Mélanie, but she's out of town; their romance isn't exactly burning bright anyway, with Yann pretty sure he's kind of a disappointment to her ("I'm pretty sure she thinks I spend my days playing around with gadgets") while he isn't too thrilled about many aspects of their relationship.
       Yann's life-change comes when he runs into the neighbors -- or rather their armoire, blocking the stairs. He's seen the wife and kids before -- and his girlfriend has grumbled about them -- but this is the first time Yann has encountered the whole family together, or met the gregarious father. One thing leads to another and he winds up spending the evening at their place, enjoying dinner, too much wine, and, above all else, their company.
       Here Yann finds an example of life at its best and happiest, and he's completely won over by their attitudes; it just takes one night and he's ready to upend his life and embrace an entirely new one (sans Mélanie, of course).
       If not the exact destination, it's nevertheless always clear where both Mathilde and Yann's stories (and lives) are headed, with Gavalda quickly and easily transitioning them from humdrum, no-hope life to the embrace of something radically different full of promise (wisely then left unexplored, though of course she suggests a lifetime of happiness ahead). (Interestingly, among the common elements in her recipe for personal success is abandonment of the metropolis: happiness is apparently not to be found in the too-big city, at least not by these two.)
       If these are all-too-predictably sappy tales, they're nevertheless spirited, and if not exactly sharp they're at least inspired in detail and voice. Both stories are narrated in the first-person, save the final stretch of Mathilde (most of which nevertheless closely follows Mathilde's ongoing adventures), and if the voices aren't always convincingly twenty-something there's no denying that Gavalda has a knack for condensing and conveying experience and feeling sharply, pointedly, and effectively. Her characters are deeply -- almost painfully -- introspective, but the writing remains light, almost flighty: as in real life, her characters' thoughts flit about rather than manage to dwell on a topic for too long. Gavalda doesn't go for the elaborate sentence (or argument or thought); her style is quick and clipped, zipping right along. You can almost skim the story, and still get the full gist and experience -- as Mathilde explains and admits:
I'm going to finish out this story. I'm warning you, though: you can push fast-forward a few times. You won't miss much
       But the stories themselves read like they are already on fast-forward .....
       Gavalda also nicely changes up tone and approach -- and speed, slowing down and then accelerating again. She goes on at proper lengths at times, and then elsewhere cuts things down to size again:
     I look at my glass. How many swallows left ? Three ? Four ?
     Almost nothing.
     Almost nothing, and what remained of one of the most beautiful evenings of my unpromising existence.
     I didn't have the heart to empty it.
     My offering.
     My offering to the spirits watching over the unknown Ariane. I hoped they would be grateful to me, and let her live in peace

     I reached for my jacket.
       This isn't good writing -- it's hard not to roll your eyes in places -- but it is accomplished; Gavalda is a pro, and she knows what she's doing, and she does it well. It's the voice(s) that sustain these shallow (but pretend-profound) stories, and these she handles very, very well: they're nothing like a monotone, while she also avoids making too much of the characters, not giving them depths that wouldn't be believable. It's not that the voices are authentic, either -- Gavalda's presentation is much too smooth and polished, expert even, for that -- but the overall picture is convincing. And the voices are thoroughly engaging, which is what pulls the reader through.
       It's hard to recommend Life, Only Better (or indeed anything by Gavalda) and yet one can understand the popularity of her writing. It is an interesting reading experience, in any case.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 November 2015

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Life, Only Better: Reviews: Other books Anna Gavalda under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       French author Anna Gavalda was born in 1970. She has written several immensely popular works of fiction.

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© 2015-2021 the complete review

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