Agnès Desarthe ‘The Chance of their Lifetimes’

She speaks English. At least she had learned it at her Lycée. But today she realises, now that they will be here for a year, maybe, in a country where it is spoken, that she knows it very little. She muses that there is the same difference between the language that she thought she knew and that spoken here as between a middle aged woman as she wakes in her worn nightdress, her feet in her husbands oversized slippers, and the same woman with her face made up, her hair arranged and wearing high heels. She asks herself which of these two women resembles the English she had once learnt in her lycée.***

The story opens with Hector, Sylvie and their fourteen year old adolescent son Lester flying from Paris to North Carolina where Hector has obtained a teaching post for one year, which could maybe be prolonged at a local university. The story told in the third person concentrates on Sylvie, and tells of Lester and Hector as observed by Sylvie. Sylvie had married Hector, quite a bit younger than her, and from a relatively well off bourgeois family where the wife was not expected to work, in moving from Paris and her life to North Carolina where she knows no one, Sylvie becomes introspective, firstly thinking about her life to date, playing on her age relative to Lester’s:

She has more or less decided to be her son’s grandmother. It wasn’t her idea, but that of a woman on the bus….”Hey young man”, the woman had said, leaning towards Lester, you are lucky to have such a young granny”….Of course Sylvie didn’t lie to the administration, nor on the forms to be filled out for the school or the town hall. It was only during informal encounters, at the park, at shows, with people she didn’t know and wouldn’t meet again,that she used this version of their relationship. She didn’t refer to Lester as “my son”, she said “my little one” or “my boy.”***

And then on her imagined difficulty in communicating with the world around her, as illustrated in the opening quote. We follow Sylvie as she initially gets lost in the streets in which she lives where she has no reference points and as she eventually finds a means of expression through a pottery class. In parallel her charismatic son gathers around himself all of the marginal pupils at his school that are excluded from the usual groups and who follow him almost like a religious leader without any of their, much to occupied parents noticing. And her womanising husband doing much the same with the female teachers at the faculty. All of this to the background of the Paris terrorist attacks.

There are two awakening calls, the first as the plumber unblocks the washing machine pipes to find they are blocked by a large number of intertwined condoms and in trying to ease her suspicions tells her that they’re maybe her son’s. As she realises what this discovery means, she feels something agreeable as it explains a number of incongruous observations, such as the cutlery not being in its usual place. The second is when the varying neighbours, noticing that their children can no longer be reached on their cell phones, discover the influence of Lester on their children and take the children’s explanations of being touched by Lester literally.

This is a slow moving introspective study of Sylvie and how the choices she has made in life have shaped her and of her hidden inner strength.

First Published in French as “La chance de leur vie” in 2018 by L’Éditions de l’Olivier.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle parle anglais. Du moins a-t-elle appris cette langue au lycée. Mais elle se rend compte aujourd’hui, à présent qu’elle s’installe pour un an, peut-être, dans un pays où cet idiome circule, qu’elle ne la connaît que très peu. Elle songe qu’il y a la même différence entre la langue qu’elle croyait maîtriser et celle que l’on parle ici, qu’entre une femme plus toute jeune, au réveil, vêtue d’une chemise de nuit usée, les pieds dans les savates trop grandes de son mari, et la même, maquillée, coiffée et chaussée d’escarpins. Elle se demande à laquelle de ces deux femmes ressemble l’anglais appris autrefois au lycée.

Elle a plus ou moins décide d’être la grande-mère de son fils. L’idée n’est venue d’elle, mais d’une femme dans le bus….”dis donc mon bonhomme”, avait lancé la dame en se penchant vers Lester, tu en as de la chance d’avoir une mamie aussi jeune”….Bien entendue, Sylvie ne mentait pas à l’administration, ni sur les fiches à remplir pour l’école ou la mairie. C’était seulement lors des rencontres informelles, au square, au spectacle, face à des inconnus qu’elle ne reverrait jamais, qu’elle avait recours à cette version de leur filiation. Elle ne désignait pas Lester en disant “mon fils”, elle disait “mon petit” ou “mon garçon.”

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