by Sophie Divry
published by: MacLehose Press, 2017
The French title of the novel La Condition Pavillonnaire, could be literally translated as ‘Suburban Life’, but for an English reader the Flaubert reference is made explicit. Madame Bovary of the Suburbs focuses on a woman (like Flaubert’s heroine) who marries a dull, plodding, timid man ‘a reassuring support’ and subsequently has an affair. When she’s rejected, unlike Emma Bovary, instead of resorting to arsenic, ‘you’, or the character sometimes referred to as M A stays with her husband; and we see her ordinary life unfold from childhood to old age and death, from the era of VHS to iPod, and from suburban 1970s to the present day. This excellent translation by Alison Anderson captures 1970s slang and subtly changes as M A ages.
In this wry take on Flaubert’s masterpiece, written in the strangely intimate but at the same time distancing, almost anonymous second person, ‘you’ are Emma Bovary transposed to the suburban life of the late 20th, early 21st century. Nothing has really changed from the 19th century; in a materialistic world women’s lives are still marked by the struggle between freedom and comfort. As a mother, ‘you’ have to ‘conscript your body in the service of the smooth operation of the family machine…overwhelmed by the bodies of others.’ Ultimately, in this very French novel, this conflict results in an existence where something is always missing; and you constantly look for the ‘tug of novelty’ to give your life meaning, whether it’s through work, children, affairs, material goods, yoga or art. This struggle to feel fulfilled, results in an existence that is absurd. The human condition.
Although we believe we’re all unique and individual, the patterns, set by social norms, by child-rearing, by ageing and by our own personalities, are inescapable; ultimately, we find we have become our parents. Then it starts all over again: ‘another pregnant woman will come to live under this roof.’ Until we realise that life is made up of ‘the present tense of a sentence in which one is breathing, not on an event situated in the future’, we are doomed to frustration and after every new experience we’ll find ourselves ‘standing disappointed in front of the refrigerator.’ In this surprisingly moving book Sophie Divry shows us that if we always expect life to consist of ‘intense’ experiences, we’ll be disappointed.
Madame Bovary of the Suburbs is a profound, modern, ironic take on the human condition.