David Foenkinos: La délicatesse – Delicacy (2009)

Natalie isn’t certain of anything anymore. One minute she was a happily married young woman, successful in her career, and convinced the future was full of promise. But when her husband was run over by a car, her whole world was turned upside down. Years later, still bruised with grief but desperate to move on with her life, she impulsively kisses her colleague Markus. For Natalie, the kiss is just a gratuitous act. For the awkward, unassuming Markus, it is the moment at which he falls hopelessly, helplessly in love. But how will he ever convince such a beautiful, intelligent but confused young woman that he is the man who can bring her back to life?

I read a review of DelicacyLa délicatesse on Emma’s blog (here) last year and thought it sounded nice. And it really is a charming book. While it will not knock you off your feet, it’s entertaining and quirky and some elements reminded me of Alain de Botton’s first novels.

The story can be summarized in a few sentences. Nathalie is a young widow who struggles to go on living. For three years she is in a sort of limbo until, one morning, she kisses one of the men from her company. An unimpressive, invisible Swedish guy named Markus. What doesn’t mean much for her and was just a very weird whim, means the world to Markus. They are, as one would say, not in the same league. She is incredibly attractive and beautiful while nobody even notices him.

Charles, their boss, is equally in love with Nathalie which complicates things even more. When Markus asks Nathalie out, she accepts although she isn’t really in the mood. How surprising to find out that this plain-looking man is far from ordinary.

I’m sure this sounds like a pretty usual romance but what makes Delicacy worthwhile is the way in which it is told. The story is divided into 117 chapters, some of them not longer than a sentence, some a few pages long. While the story is told chronologically, many of the short chapters contain quirky remarks, information on things that happened or were said in the preceding chapter, a recipe for a dish, the star signs of the co workers. Additionally there are footnotes making generalizing remarks like “Women called Nathalie are often nostalgic”.

All of these comments and annotations may seem random and silly at first but after a while you realize that Foenkinos’ main themes are prejudice, preconceptions and generalisations and that what he does is quite clever really. He confronts the reader constantly with this type of thinking, with his own prejudices. We are all biased to a certain degree. We associate characteristics with nationalities and even with names. Some research has found out that children are treated differently at school depending on their names.

Gossip is one way to let loose all those preconceptions and faulty ideas about others. Someone walking by without saying hello may just have a bad day while people who see him will interpret this behaviour in different ways “Maybe someone has died”. “He has been reprimanded by the boss”. “He is very ill”… . This is exactly what Nathalie and Markus face once people notice that they have met outside of the company.

I don’t want to spoil the book, so I’m not going into too many details but once you finish, you will see how different the “perfect” relationship between Nathalie and her good-looking dead husband is from how Nathalie and Markus interact.

La délicatesseDelicacy is charming and amusing. It tells a sweet love story and at the same time manages in a very playful and light way to make us aware of our short comings when we meet new people and judge them sometimes for no other reasons than their name and nationalities.

33 thoughts on “David Foenkinos: La délicatesse – Delicacy (2009)

  1. Sounds interesting, Caroline! Normally I find footnotes in fiction quite irritating, but I like the idea of confronting the reader with her prejudices. We do all make judgements and decisions about people based on the information we have available, and often that information is extremely limited: name, appearance, ethnicity, gender, demeanour, etc. One of the things I’ve found interesting about living in different countries is seeing the different ways in which people treat me, the assumptions they make. Helps me to be more aware of the assumptions I make about others.

    • It’s not heavy on footnotes at, just afew here and there. I thought some of what he writes about is very true. I’ve heard people say things like”He/she is quite attractive if it wasn’t for the name”. And nationalities really trigger ideas. I’m sure we all have some conceptions in our heads about our fellow bloggers just based on names and nationalities as not many, like you, add a picture. And even with the photo.
      It is interesting to see how people in other countries see you, that’s for sure.

  2. I can’t tell if I would love this or hate the meta stuff. Fortunately (or un) however I will never have to find out since my library would never (or could never) get such an avant-garde book when it has to buy 146 copies of the latest Charlaine Harris and 205 copies of the latest Clive Cussler. …which is why I appreciate reading about such things on blogs like yours and Richard’s! :–)

    • Hard to say if you would like it but I think you might. It’s not overdone. Some readers according to amazon reviews didn’t even get it, they thought it was just a love story (maybe the tanslation erased the tone tone which is quite ironic). And since it has been made into a movie with Audrey Tautou…I didn’t mention that in the review as I didn’t want people to go all “Ah Amélie…”. It’s quite different.
      205 Charlaine Harris copies. She sure is popular. Although, I enjoy reading her once in a while.

  3. I’m glad you liked the book, Caroline. I totally agree with your review: everything is in the writing and the form, the story in itself isn’t very original. I thought it was funny.

    You’re also right to point out the importance of prejudices in the book. It ridicules our prejudices and the assumptions we make on people according to their nationalities.
    Gosh, why do foreigners stare at me with puzzlement when I say I don’t drink wine? Not all French people drink wine.

    Let’s try your prejudices: do you think that the reverse situation, ie a beautiful and sexy man falling for a plain and dull woman at work would have sounded plausible?

    I also thought – and it was palpable in the film too – that the writer doesn’t know much about the actual work in an office. True, he got the coffee machine scenery quite well but the work Markus and Nathalie did was a bit… abstract.

    • I did like it, yes.
      I was at one point a bit annoyed about her being so good looking and not much else, while he is plain at least he is witty. I got a feeling for the type of perosn he could be. But I was hoping Foenkinos did it deliberatley.
      Now that you mention it, yes, it’s true, it didn’t portray work in an office very well. It’s very abstract. Gossip isn’t typical for offices, it happens everywhere. Not even that is typical.
      The part on prejudice is well done. All he said about names was so funny.
      I can imagine their looks when you say you don’t drink wine… If you would order beer they would probably faint while they would think it’s quite alright if you were German or British.

      • I don’t drink beer either, so I can’t tell you the effect it could have if I ordered beer.
        You know, the beautiful woman falling for the funny guy is a stereotype too. (Wow, my British English is improving, I almost used “bloke” 🙂 )

  4. One thing that got my attention about your commentary Caroline, was how you mentioned that one of the main themes here involves perception verses reality in regard to both people and relationships. Over the last year or so I have been reading though some Philip Roth novels. One of his main themes is that as humans, we almost always read other people wrong and go through life with false images of others in our minds. It sounds like Foenkinos has a similar way of thinking.

    • Yes, it sounds similar but please don’t get the wrong impression, Philip Roth is much more complex and a far superior writer.
      I think we often misjudge people but what almost frightens me is how little most people know themselves.

  5. I’ve actually got this one out from the libary now–it looked interesting. I’m glad to actually read a review of it as it sounded sort of fluffy, but now I think it has more to it than it looks while still being fun and somewhat playful!

    • Ah…Now I remember. I had a feeling I had seen it mentioned on someone’s blog but when I saw the post I didn’t put two and two together as I didn’t know the English title. It’s quite enjoyable and the love story worked well for me too. At first I was a bit confused until I realized he was ironic. It’s a nice read. I’ d be curious to hear what you think of it.

  6. I’m curious about this one…I think I would like this type of storytelling. Not the usual type that I read, but it sounds like a refreshing break from the norm.

    • It was very refrshing. I’m not too keen on romance but it was different.I thought those footnotes and small chapters were fun and thought-provoking as well. It seems they killed the freshness with the movie and turned it into a trite love story.

  7. The movie was just here and I was very disappointed to miss it, until I read your review. Now I’ll read the book, which is usually better than the movie anyway. Did you read it in French, Caroline?

    • Without having read the book first you might have liked it. i think Emma had a problem with the cast and thought it wasn’t witty while the book is.
      Yes, I read it in French. I cannot say anthing about the translation at all. I hope it is good. It’s a charming book and one that makes you discover your own prejudices.

      • Interestingly, I read a review on amazon.com that said it would be hard to imagine the original French, since the English translation was so wonderful. That really surprised me. Now I’m tempted to compare them, if I only had the time. Have you ever done that?

        • Only the first couple of pages when they were available on amazon.
          It’s possible it’s a good translation but it’s equally possible they changed the tone. I’m curious as well now.

        • I just checked the first page…. That isn’t the same thing at all. Where the French says at the end of the page “That’s very rare for a Nathalie”, the English says “That’s very rare for Nathalie” and the generalization in the foot note makes no more sense. The tone is different from the beginning on. The French is oddly cold and it takes quite a while until you understand that the first relationship is a bit of a parody. I’ve read somewhere else that ironiy and sarcasm was often toned down in translations destined for a US public.

  8. It sounds like a beautiful love story which you know not my kind of read 😉 however it might be good to see it as movie.

    What interest me from your review is how the book is written in so many chapters and some only has a sentence. It reminds me of a japanese book but the book is so surreal

    • Emma and I came to the same concluion, the story isn’t anything special although it’s nice but the way it is told is very unique but not surreal at all.
      The movie seems much more sugary.

  9. I have this to read (sent a review copy) and am hoping to get to it in the next few weeks. Very glad once again to read your thoughts, which I am pretty sure will match my own impressions. I have read Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan, to go with it, as it is another of those ordinary lives, but quirkily told stories.

    • I thought it was quite different and enjoyable without being to light. It moved me less than Underground Time but I don’t always need to be emotionally involved to enjoy a book.
      I’m curious to see what you will think of this one.

    • I only have Emma’s fedback who watched the film after having read the book nd she preferred the book. I think you would find it interesting. It’s an unusual approach.

  10. Nice review, Caroline! I think I will like this book. I will keep an eye for it. A love story with footnotes – that is quite interesting 🙂

    • I was thinking of you when I read this because of your recent Alain de Botton review and there are some similarities. Especially how he describes how she met her husband and what they were thinking. It’s entertaining and charming but not shallow. I’d be very curous to read your thoughts.

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