Madame Bovary Of The Suburbs

By Sophie Divry

trans Alison Anderson

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Maclehose Press, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

IN a reimagining of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, French novelist Sophie Divry offers a latter-day version of the emotional immolation that destroyed Charles Bovary’s wife. The conditions that drove Emma to distraction in the 19th century of course no longer exist. Divry’s tense, drily repetitive yet compulsive narrative nevertheless manages to persuade that while an educated citizen of the 20th century had vastly more opportunities than her earlier fictional counterpart, for a woman of talent and ambition – perhaps for all women – life in the suburbs could represent as cruel a trap as the deadly routines of a small-town doctor’s wife.

The life-story of Divry’s character, referred to only as M-A, is delivered in a confiding second-person, as if presuming the reader will be only too familiar with her predicament. Born into an ordinary rustic family, and liberated by the chance to go to university, M-A quickly marries a doting, diffident young man called Francois. From the start she takes the initiative in getting her husband’s career going, at the same time flourishing in her own job with a furniture company. Soon children are born, and life in the banlieu pavillionaire flows easily, naturally, and with relentless metronomic predictability. The second part of the novel opens with Flaubert’s remark, “deep in her soul, however, she was waiting for an event”. This, M-A engineers by throwing herself into an affair with a colleague, only to discover she has been duped in her expectations.

Almost as central to this story as its human personnel is the washing machine, perpetually on its cycle between dirty and clean. The car also plays a big role, shuttling the family to and from work, school, supermarket and holidays. Indeed, Divry’s acuity lies partly in her ability to see the relentless, all but mesmerising part machines play in a working mother’s life. At times it makes for rather dull fiction, at others, it is sharply effective:

“It took you years to realise what it meant to get married, to be married, to be the spouse of, to be the other partner in the conjugal home, to be officially bound by this legal and moral relationship that began the evening of the day the wedding party ended ... the eldest among us aware of what awaits the newlyweds once everyone has left, once the tables have been cleared, the last goodbyes are said, and we find ourselves alone in front of a refrigerator.”

There is a patina of glibness in Divry’s prose that is tempered by a strong vein of understanding. She knows well that for those who find themselves the victims of once-willing circumstances, few have articulated it better than Flaubert: “Like sailors in distress, she gazed around with despairing eyes upon the loneliness of her life, seeking a white sail on the immensities of the misty horizon.” Cleverly and at times drolly, Divry demonstrates that while times and manners and attitudes may change, human nature never does.