Published Oct 19, 2013In her first novel, Irène Némirovsky follows a summer romance after the holiday ends and the mundanity of daily life resumes. Written when the author was twenty-one, The Misunderstanding uses this simple premise to explore love and the tolls of working-class living.
This tale—in a nod to Madame Bovary—follows an extramarital affair between Denise, a wealthy, bored housewife, and Yves, a disillusioned former soldier whose fortune and optimism vanished during the Great War. Having "had the happy childhood of a little rich boy who was healthy and pampered," Yves is unprepared for life as an employee and lives for his yearly retreat to the seaside tourist resort of his youth. There he meets Denise, an acquaintance's wife, who, having a comfortable but passionless marriage, finds herself unexpectedly drawn to him. The idyllic setting of southern France fosters romance and a sense of possibility. Both protagonists yearn to escape the banalities of their routines. Their liaison provides them with hope, solace and distraction—for a time, at least.
Denise returns from her vacation consumed by the love she feels for her new paramour. "Her whole life would change: how happy she was going to be! Gone would be…those interminable hours with nothing to do, gone the feeling of emptiness and boredom that poisoned her life." In contrast, Yves returns to a dreary office job, feeling that "the days dragged on, each the same, bringing with them, come the evening, a feeling of extreme weariness, headaches, a bitter and unhealthy need for solitude."
As quotidian rhythms reassert themselves in very different ways for each protagonist, their relationship shows signs of estrangement. Miscommunication, misunderstanding and incompatible expectations soon arise. While Denise had entered the affair aware of its transient nature (e.g., "Love…or rather, a brief romantic adventure: she would give her heart, of course, but he, the man, would only be interested in satisfying his vanity or his desire. She wanted nothing to do with the superficial poetry of some romantic novel."), she soon finds herself desperate to preserve it. Her ungoverned desire cultivates feelings of insecurity and suspicion, leading to an increasing need for Yves's reassurances.
Unsurprisingly, the more Denise wants to feel understood and loved on her own very specific terms, the more he retreats, confident she will be there for him when he wants her. For Yves, love means tranquility. He yearns for comfort and quiet consolation. She craves excitement and romantic exhortations. If only love meant the same thing to—and came with the same assumptions for—everyone.
While the prose occasionally falters and the plot hints at melodrama (e.g., why don't the lovers discuss their concerns?), the novel shows Némirovsky's sharp psychological insight and lucid understanding of the inner-workings of relationships. The author's satirical bite far outweighs her indiscriminate use of ellipses. In 160 pages, she eviscerates the class system and draws out the ephemeral nature of feelings, revealing the discord that often exists between our ideals and our reality.
The Misunderstanding uses an extramarital affair to reflect upon the impermanence of everything—from romance to finances to life itself. The exhilarating charge of a new romance naturally wanes, changing into something more domestic, if arguably richer. People die, mountains erode and stars expire. While nothing is eternal, for some reason we, like Denise, want love to be the exception. (Random House)