Anna Gavalda: L’échappée belle – Breaking Away/French Leave (2009)

Breaking Away

When you look for something light but still profound, Anna Gavalda is an ideal choice. Her writing is airy but not fluffy. Her characters struggle but they make it eventually. Her slim novel, L’échappée belle, which has been published under two different names in English— Breaking Away and French Leave— was just like that. Entertaining, yet thoughtful. Amusing but a bit sad as well. The only problem I had was the structure. Breaking Away is divided in two parts. In both parts the book is told from Garance’s point of view but in the first part she’s the first person narrator, while the story is told in the third person in the later chapters. I wasn’t entirely sure why Anna Gavalda chose this approach. It gave the book a disjointed feel.

Garance, her older sister, Lola, her older brother, Simon, and her sister-in-law, Carine are on the way to a marriage. The scenes in the car are priceless. Carine is quite stuck up and the two sisters tease her mercilessly. They make her feel excluded, shock her, and push all of her buttons. Especially Garance, whose life style is wild and disorganized, antagonizes her constantly.

When they arrive at their destination the three siblings realize they are not in the mood for marriage malarkey, for family and hypocrisy. They would rather spend a day on their own and decide to pay a visit to their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a Château.

Once there, they spend a wonderful time together. The siblings are very close and you get the feeling that whoever joins them, will always stay outside. This cannot be easy for a spouse or a girlfriend/boyfriend.

The siblings all seem at a turning point— newly divorced, just starting or ending a relationship. Garance is the one who will undergo the biggest change adn she has a new friend: a dog she adopted on the road trip. While the first part is like a road movie, the second shows us Garance on her own, in Paris.

Although the book is flawed and I didn’t understand the author’s choice to change from 1st to 3rd person, I did enjoy this. I have no siblings, so I always idealize the relationships between brothers and sister, even though most siblings I’ve met in real life never had such an intense, harmonious relationship.

A lot of Breaking Away is written in spoken language, using different types of accents and vernacular. I wonder how the translator handled this. It can’t  have been easy. In my opinion this gives the book added meaning, more depth. There’s a North African shop owner, for example, who speaks with a very strong accent. Reading it, I could hear it and was at first a bit shocked because it seemed racist but then we find out that Rachid speaks a perfect, accent free French, and only uses this accent to make fun of people who expect every North African to talk like this.

I’m glad that I still own another book by Anna Gavalda which I haven’t read yet – Hunting and Gathering – Ensemble c’est tout. It has been made into a movie and so has Someone I Loved. Her books make excellent choices for movies as her writing is heavy on dialogue.

For another take on the book, here’s Guy’s (His Futile Preoccupations) review.

Echappee belle

20 thoughts on “Anna Gavalda: L’échappée belle – Breaking Away/French Leave (2009)

  1. Glad you enjoyed this one, Caroline: as you say light but still meaningful. I have one sibling & we are close I’m happy to say, and you could ask us about any moral issue and we’d be on the same page-albeit different places on that page perhaps. However, most siblings I know still carry a lot of childhood resentments and jealousy into adulthood.

    • It’s nce to be entertained in an intelligent way.
      I’m glad to hear you’re the exception. I always wanted a sibling but most of those who have do’t get along that well or two get along and one’s left out or . . . families are nothing if not complicated. she got that right as well, despite the sibling harmony.

  2. I read this several years ago expecting it (a gift) to be purely sentimental fluff (Gavalda’s books are on the best-seller racks in every Relay store in every airport and train station in France), but was pleasantly surprised to have my expectations overturned. An échappée belle indeed. It is sentimental (the ending nearly ruined it for me), but the central idea – of just throwing off one’s social obligations and going on a lark – is so appealing, and the situations and characters so recognizable. It reminded me a bit of Eric Rohmer’s films. I saw an interview with Gavalda on French TV not long after reading the novel and found her completely unpretentious, self-aware, and affable.

    • She’s very popular but I think the taste in France is different. Sure, you’ll find some corny stuff like Musso or Levy, but right next to great authors like Delphine de Vigan or Anna Gavalda. I always feel the treatment of more serious books is quite different. But then again Anna Gavalda isn’t pretentious. The language is accessible, a lot of dialogue. The thoughts and the themes are deep, the style is simple. It’s not that easy.
      As much as I liked this, I think her shoty story collection and her first novel are even better.
      She’s got a new one out btw.

  3. it does seem a bit more than what is commercial fiction over here ,I’ve seen her name but haven’t yet tried her books in translation ,accents are one think I can get lost in translation

  4. This sounds like a good one for when you’re in the mood for something light but worthwhile, and I’m sure it would make for an entertaining film. It’s interesting to see that the novel reminded Scott of Eric Rohmer’s films as I love some of his stuff. I hadn’t heard of Anna Gavalda before so I should take a look.

    • Eric Rhomer is a good comparison.
      The earlier books area tad darker but the writing has the same light quality. She has a great ear for dialogue. Definitely an author to discover.

  5. I have of late come to really appreciate seemingly light books that contain a lot of wisdom or meaning.

    I think that the idea of the closeness of the siblings transcending everything in the outside world has a lot of plot and character potential.

    • I find that a lot of contemporaray French literature manages just that.
      I loved the parts with the poor sister-in-law. she had no chnace and didn’t even get it that they were teasing her.

  6. Nice review, Caroline! I think I will like this book. Books with wonderful dialogue are always great to read. The story looks quite interesting too. I think it is always difficult for an outsider to become part of a family where the siblings are close. I found your comment that real world siblings aren’t always like the idealized siblings which we imagine, quite fascinating. I think that is very true.

    • I think you’d like Anna Gavalda. I loved the relationships of these siblings, but as I said, I don’t know of more than one or two cases who get along well in real life. Soem are completely sestranged, some are quarreling all the time and many just don’t care. For those, like me, without siblings it seems like such a lost opportunity.

  7. I read this a while ago and liked it. My library has a few of her other novels so I might have to borrow them. I’m in a bit of a reading slump at the moment and can’t concentrate on anything too taxing. *sigh*

    I don’t have any siblings either, but I wish that I did. I had two, much older, half-siblings for a few years until we lost touch. They didn’t like me, but I worshipped them when I was little and it was quite a surprise to find out when I was a teenager just how deep their feelings of sibling rivalry went. Families. It’s all a bit hard. Pfft.

    • She’s ideal when you can’t read anything too taxing but something that’s still intelligent. I really like her short stories.
      Family is hard. I couldn’t agree more. It’s sad your half-siblings couldn’t appreciate a younger sibling, especially when the sibling admires them.

  8. This sounds like the perfect book for times when you want a light read that’s well written too. Those aren’t always easy to find.
    I could understand that the shift from first person to third person would feel disjointed. It’s hard to imagine why the author chose to switch points of view, especially when it’s the same character. I always tell my students not to do this. 😉

    • I think this is an author you’d like. I think it’s OK to switch from 1st to 3rd if you have a good reaosn but staying in the same POV, only changing the “distance”. Not so sure.
      I think it’s good advice, especially for authors who haven’t been published yet. Wouldn’t want to sink the boat before it’s floating. 🙂

  9. She is someone I definitely want to try and I have at least one of her books on my shelves. Which is your favorite by her? Any particular book I should start with? I like the sound of her writing–just about what I can manage these days–light and airy yet with something a bit more!

    • She’s fantastic in those moments.
      I loved her short stories. I really did.
      I suppose Hunting and Gathering is very good but it’s a bit chunky. I’ll read it anyway some day.
      I’m pretty sure you’d like her short fiction.

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