Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Meeting of January 23, 2012

Our host this month was Michèle.  Present were Beth, Betty, Carla, Colette, Jolene, Michèle, Shirley and briefly via skype, Linda.  Canapés, cheese and grapes were served along with a vanilla cranberry cheese cake.

As is our tradition, in January we award a prize to the member whose book in the previous year was most popular.  The Academy Award 2011 goes to Shirley  for Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda that received four votes.  This is the second year in a row that Shirley has won. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Gordon and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie came in second with two votes each.  Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson and Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks each received one vote.  The variety of books we read in 2011 is clearly a reflection of the eclectic interests of our members!

The book choice this month presented by Michèle is The Mark of the Angel by Nancy Huston.  Ms Huston is a Canadian writer who has lived in France for several years.  She has published 45 books of which 13 are fiction written originally in French and self-translated into English.  She has also written 14 non-fiction books in French of which only two have been translated, the most recent The Tale-Tellers - A Short Study of Humankind in 2008. 

The Mark of the Angel is a story about a young German woman Saffie, who has immigrated to Paris in 1957 and the two men in her life, Raphaël her husband and Andràs her lover.  It is obvious from the beginning of the story that Saffie's troubled past and the demons she lives with impact on her actions and reactions to others. She shows little emotion with Raphaël and none of the emotions usually felt by motherhood.  She changes significantly when she meets Andràs, a Hungarian who lives with his own demons.

Several members enjoyed the book though found it a dark and tragic story. A couple of members did not enjoy the book because there is no hope of happiness or even of a better life in the story.   Generally we felt the characters were well developed.  Raphaël is self-absorbed in his professional career as a musician, has a love-lust relationship with Saffie.  Andràs, who we meet a little later in the story, is a spirited revolutionist and Saffie is immediately attracted to him.  Saffie lives a double life and her personality changes with each man. She is Raphaël's wife in their rue de Seine apartment, orderly, quiet and bourgeois.  She crosses the Seine by the Pont des Arts and becomes Andràs' lover in a life filled with disorder and unpredictability.

The story takes place during the Algerian's quest for independence from France and though there are several descriptions of demonstrations and France's reaction, it does not impact on the story.  There does not seem to be connection except as a vehicle for Andràs' revolutionary beliefs.

There are no characters in this story that we can become attached to, like or find endearing.  Some felt sorry for Raphaël and believed that he truly loved Saffie, enough to refuse to visit his mother if she did not accept his wife.  All felt sorry for Saffie and Raphaël's son Émil who was used by his mother as a foil in her relationship with Andràs and tragically also used by his father Raphaël, blinded by Saffie's betrayal.

A resumé of our reflections on this story cannot be complete without one member's very dramatic reaction to the story.  She was furious and frustrated by the characters and the story.  She felt that we did not get enough about the characters' backgrounds to understand their actions and reactions to each other, especially Saffie.  She wanted to learn more about Mme Hortense Trala-Lepage, Raphël's mother who stays in the background.  She felt that the story was incomplete.

For those who might think of reading other books by Nancy Huston, be forewarned that characters in her stories rarely have endearing qualities and she does not write stories with happy endings.


  1. As indicated in the last paragraph, Nancy Huston does not write stories that are easily likeable. However, most of you know that she is one of my favourite authors, I have read several of her books. I like dramatic dark characters, damaged by their background and their surroundings. I find that these type of characters and stories stay with me longer, challenge me to reflect and re-think my original understanding of the story. Saffie at the beginning of this story, decides to marry Raphaël because he can give her a new identity as a french citizen but finding herself pregnant brings back her memories of childhood that she can't face, she tries and fails to abort. She is unable to feel anything for this child until she meets Andràs who is so totally different from her husband and their orderly life, brings out emotions in her and she becomes addicted to them. She lives two lives, one of imposed order and social requirements with Raphaël and across the bridge, the disorder of her addiction to Andràs. Her two lives collide when Raphaël sees Émil's multi-coloured coat held by Andràs and the result of the collision is tragedy.


  2. I found it a very memorable book too, both in the characters and setting. What wasn't or couldn't be explained is part of that final effect - you either like that fragmentary style or you don't. However, aside from the Algerian "disconnect", I found it intriguing, infuriating, haunting and thought-provoking. Could make a good movie - in the "noir" style!
    I'd love to know why the author decided to stay in France at such a young age, and how she came to apparently identify with her adopted country so closely.


    1. As to Ms. Huston's decision to stay in Paris, she went originally on an exchange from a University in New York and finished a Master's thesis supervised by the philosopher Roland Barthes who was quite a well known French philosopher. She says "I fell in love, obtained a degree, fell out of love. By 1976 I had reached the point of no return. I felt I could survive better in a place with no associations... where I could make myself over." Her thesis was on swear words. Her husband Tzvetan Todorov is a Bulgarian/Franco philosopher.



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