Published in 1954, when French author Françoise Sagan was a mere 19-years-old, Bonjour, Tristesse tells the story of Cécile, a well-off teen girl who has been kicked out of university and is now vacationing with her widowed father Raymond along the French Riviera. Joining them for a long summer along the gorgeous blue waters of the Riviera is Elsa, Raymond’s mistress. Cécile doesn’t actively loathe Elsa, but she does find her to be a bit gauche and noisy. But being widowed since Cécile was a little girl, Cécile expects her father wants to have fun and by now, she is used to her father collecting women and then doing away with them once he has grown bored.
Cécile, like a lot of teen girls, is blossoming into womanhood and is trying to figure out who she is. She often comes across as an old soul, and at other times, a petulant child. She hangs out at casinos with her father and his older friends, and has an affair with Cyril, a man in his twenties. But she also pouts and rebels when she is expected to study so she can continue her education.
Cécile expects to have a carefree summer, spending time on the beach, dancing and drinking at nightclubs, spending time with her father and his friends, and yes, learning the ways of horizontal love with Cyril. But then someone joins this scenario, Cécile’s father’s long-time lady friend, Anne.
Anne is everything Elsa is not. She is closer to Raymond’s age and has an impressive career in fashion. She is sophisticated, wise and refined. And soon Raymond turns his affections towards her, and it is not long before he asks Anne to marry him. Cécile is not too happy about this. Though she has long admired Anne for her grace and intelligence, she thinks of Anne as an interloper, not welcomed into the world Cécile and her father have created for the two of them. And when Anne counsels Cécile on how she should behave with her lover, Cyril, and implores that she devotes more time to her studies, Cécile can’t help but get touchy. Who does this vieille dame think she is?
What seems to be an over-riding theme for Cécile during this summer is a sense of loss, everything from the loss of her father to Anne (and his affection) to the loss of her sexual innocence to Cyril. And though Cécile tries to put on a brave face, you sense her vulnerability, her melancholy, hence the title of this book Bonjour, Tristesse-Hello, Sadness, is very approprié.
Cécile learns a great deal at this tender age. She learns that the adult world can be very confusing, but she also learns about herself. She doesn’t know everything, but every day she is learning more.
Bonjour, Tristesse is a slim novel, pretty much novella. It is an exceptionally well-written piece of literature that captures the timeless essence of what it is like to be a teenage girl. Though this book was published long before I was born, and I spent my summers at the mall and the movie theater, I found myself relating to young Cécile thoughts, ideas and opinions. Yes, I was once so very young; I thought I was so sophisticated but non, I was still such an unformed girl.
Sagan writes in a spare, yet detailed style I thoroughly enjoyed. I loved the descriptions of idling along the French Riviera, the stolen moments of love making with Cyril, frustrated moments with the adults that structure one’s life and in the end, Cécile’s quest to find meaning in a confusing world. Bonjour, Tristesse is stand-out in the world of literary debuts.