Mon Dieu! It's a supermarket romance that's unputdownable

 

FICTION: DelicacyBy David Foenkinos, translated by Bruce Benderson Bloomsbury, 250pp. £7.99

BOY MEETS GIRL on the street, or rather boy selects girl simply because he likes the look of her. Boy is admittedly rather unusual: a child who looks likes a man. On inviting her for a drink, he then agonises over her choice. “If she orders a decaf, he thought, I’m getting up and leaving.” If she asks for wine, he feels he could also have problems. The same goes for Coke or soda. No, his ideal woman would have to want a fruit choice. “‘That’s it. Apricot juice: perfect. If she chooses it, I’ll marry her,’ thought François.”

The girl – her name is Natalie – passes her first test and this odd little romantic comedy is up and running. Paris-based David Foenkinos also writes plays, and, unsurprisingly, Delicacyhas already been filmed, starring Audrey Tautou, for release early next year. Yet although it is fast-moving and funny, it also has a deliberate literary tone and many similarities to the early, and best, work of the US writer Nicholson Baker. Foenkinos uses punchy humour to deflect from the possible sentimentality, and he largely succeeds.

Natalie is charming and slightly absent-minded, an old-fashioned type who has, we are advised in an aside that may carry more relevance in France, “a kind of Swiss femininity”. If that seems vague, the next details are more straightforward. “She’d gone through adolescence without trauma, and she respected sidewalks.” She is still a student when she meets up with François.

Early in the narrative it becomes clear that this is a more whimsical, less knowing variation on David Nicholls’s blockbuster One Day (2009) – and be warned, Delicacy, for all its fey grace, is the first novel to have been shortlisted for each of the five major French literary awards. Neatly countering the slimness of the plot are the characterisation, the comic timing and the sheer pace.

Natalie and François have a trouble-free existence; they move in together and then marry. Natalie gets a job and with it the attentions of a boss named Charles, a terrific comic creation. He is a French man in charge of a French staff all working for a Swedish company. He is half-heartedly learning the mother company’s native language and not enjoying it. Most of the Swedish gags, including the crispbread ones, come off.

True to her nature and apparently her fate, Natalie is happy; François remains on the sane side of eccentric. He enjoys puzzles; she reads. And he also goes running.

A day that begins as well as all their other days together ends badly.

Foenkinos sustains his laconic tone, the narrative beat and his tendency towards wry authorial asides. Natalie suddenly grows up fully, or at least discovers the real world. Work becomes her sanctuary. Charles does not give up his campaign to woo her and invites Natalie to dinner. Her handling of the situation is consistent with the author’s intention of making her a three-dimensional heroine.

There is a showdown, and the dialogue never slackens, culminating in the shock Charles displays when Natalie reminds him that he has a wife.

In spite, or possibly because of, the breathless screenplay-in-the-making quality, Delicacy moves from strength to strength. What seems like a supermarket read – and probably is – is unputdownable because the narrative tension is held in check by the ordinariness of the players and the understated narrative voice. The stock elements of romance, tragedy, fairytale and good old office gossip are cleverly blended in a French novel that is curiously unFrench. The beautiful Natalie is focused, works hard and wins the respect of all. She then acts completely out of character and inflicts quite a shock on one of her colleagues, a male subordinate. Markus is a physically unattractive Swede whose appearance is described as “weird” – remember this is France; he dresses oddly and favours clothes that may well have belonged to his grandfather. Adding to these disadvantages is the fact he comes from Uppsala. “Even the inhabitants of Uppsala themselves are embarrassed: the name of their city sounds almost like an excuse.” A footnote states: “Of course, it’s possible to come from Uppsala and become Ingmar Bergman. That said, his films should give some idea of the tenor of that city.”

In Markus festers all the teenage uncertainty that Natalie never suffered. The narrative manages to pursue the unlikely without losing any of its credibility. When Natalie invites Markus to the theatre, the play they see is Strindberg’s Miss Julie. Foenkinos makes effective use of theatre as a motif. There is a sense of role-playing, yet invariably the narrative chooses the unpredictable. Markus is ultimately a hero in that he experiences all levels of emotional turmoil.

The hesitancy and uncertainty of the characters combined with the impulsive responses make this little tale that bit more than a feelgood read. If ever a story benefited royally from the quality of the writing, this is it. Delicacy could have settled into a complacent, rather silly romp. Instead it is immensely likeable, unexpectedly compelling, even moving because David Foenkinos kept such a close watch over his characters, their needs and their dreams while looking closely at the world bustling about around them. Most of all, though, he has adopted humour as his greatest ally, and it works in a novel that one might not forget all that quickly.


Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of T he Irish Timesand author of Ordinary Dogs, published by Faber