Two film producers and critics, Molly and Michèle, have more in common than their professions. They are friends, deep-bonded in a way that comes rarely in a lifetime. Michèle writes that Molly is just another iteration of herself, one who had made different choices but was essentially the same. Each woman could see how their life might have turned out had they made the choices of the other, one with children and one without. That one was French and one American made no difference, at least to them.
This gorgeously-written and -translated novel leaves us pondering our responsibility to the world, to ourselves, and to each other. The truths it contains are recognizable dilemmas any of us might face: we can imagine having to make these choices.
Halberstadt defines the friendship between the two women distinctly. The two meet several times a year on different continents, attending festivals where they watch the current crop of films, compile their critiques, and plan their free time together. Laughter and shared intimacies leave each feeling unrestricted and free to be themselves, reflected and treasured by the other. When the sudden nagging migraines of forty-year-old Molly turn out to be a brain aneurysm, Michèle blames herself.
In the explanation to her small children about why she cries, Michèle describes Molly’s coma as the deep sleep of a princess. “Waiting for Prince Charming to come and give her a kiss!” the children crow, closer to the truth than they know. When Molly finally wakes after three months, she is partially paralyzed, and her persistent short-term memory loss leaves her feeling angry, cheated of life. While she seems to retain some of her personality, her drive and verve is gone. Molly’s reaction to her condition is more a tragedy than the actual fact of her disability. She loses her defenses.
What is so involving about this novel is the immediate form, written, in the beginning, as a letter from Michèle to Molly as Molly lay unmoving, unhearing. Michèle counts the ways she loves her friend: her sappy romanticism, her trick of whistling like a boy with two fingers, her frozen-food gourmandism. How she misses her. Michèle’s own life with her husband and her children has stresses and strains that she longs to share, to get relief and perspective. But as Molly languishes, Michèle feels there is no way to tell her friend that her husband has begun an affair--wearing aftershave, getting haircuts and new clothes, carrying his phone like a talisman—and that her children now turn to the nanny for comfort. Things are slipping away and Michèle appears to be losing almost as much as Molly: her best friend, her husband, and her children.
There almost seems something unfinished in this novel, but I believe whatever it is that is missing is what we are meant to supply. Both women react similarly to crises in their lives at first, true to the nature of the shared core they recognize and celebrate in friendship. They do nothing. Molly refuses to take up the challenge of carrying on her profession, or any profession, by carrying her disability there.
”You don’t understand. I’m about to turn forty-one. Who am I supposed to be fighting for? For the guy I don’t have? For the children I’ll never have? I’m tired… I don’t even have the nerve to end it all.”Michèle, when faced with her husband’s infidelity, doesn’t have the courage to call him on it.
”I still haven’t spoken to Vincent. As long as the words aren’t spoken, the things they conceal have no reality…three words on a cell phone have turned me into this tense, nervous, unhappy woman I scarcely recognize.”But Michèle does eventually act (“Molly, you would be proud of me”) and that is why she will survive when Molly cannot.
At its finest, this novel is a meditation on the need for courage in the face of challenge. Sometimes it takes more than we think we have. But without courage, life can lose its meaning. Layered into the meditation are the uncertainties that come with friendships and married relationships. What do we owe one another? How we deal with our relationships, and with our challenges, will define us.
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