Suite Française - Irène Némirovsky, Sandra Smith
The contents of this book naturally get a bit overshadowed by the dramatic circumstances under which it was written and published. However, I will write about what I thought of it as a novel as well as a chronicle of the times it was written in.

The first part of the novel, in which various characters flee in panic from the advancing German armies and then return sheepishly when the armistice is signed, contains character portraits of some unpleasant people, in all their self-centeredness, as well as a few likable ones. Maurice and Jeanne Michaud are characters that it's good to meet. But the plot machinery creaks too loudly: I know it's a convention in an ensemble novel to have the lives of the characters intertwine, but when you have the same few people constantly meeting each other among thousands of others, no matter where they go, it's as if there were no other people in France!

There's a lingering uncertainty as to whether nothing has changed or everything has changed in France. To be sure, the characters who were prosperous before will continue to prosper by collaborating, and the characters who were poor will just pull their heads down and endure until "the storm passes". The revolt of the orphans (an anticipation of The Lord of the Flies) might suggest that "the center does not hold"; I think the author thought of them not as characters (who'll be permanently changed) but as a part of the temporary storm. It's one of her rare failings of characterization that she makes these teenagers so impersonal.

The second part is a sentimental idyll, the star-crossed love of Lucile and Bruno, set in an occupied village. There are some really good observations in this section. During Lucile's first observation of the German officer billeted at her house: "An enemy soldier never seemed to be alone — one human being like any other — but followed, crushed from all directions by innumerable ghosts, the missing and the dead." Or Mme Angellier vividly calling up memories of her absent son: "It was no longer her imagination but reality itself, rediscovered through her enduring memories, for nothing could change the fact that these things had really happened."

But the German soldiers, in contrast to well-described French characters, seem like fantasies. Not just that white knight Bruno von Falk, his perfection flawed only by his unworldliness; but every last one of the occupiers behaves with sweet innocence, thinking that the inhabitants really like them. Such naïveté is really hard to believe — after all these soldiers had supposedly seen a lot of war and occupation already, in Bruno's case four years! And Bruno expressed very genuine shock that Benoît had shot one of the soldiers who came to arrest him, saying 'what did we ever do to him'! In truth, a number of characters in this half of the novel get handed the idiot ball, in order to create the wistful atmosphere that the author is seeking.

It's odd that a book containing so many biting comments on the general egoism should, in the end, come off as so sentimentally optimistic.