I consume, at this time of year, academic books, journals, newspapers, literary and theatre magazines and the MHRA handbook. Yesterday I also read a leaflet on how to assemble a Henry hoover. I therefore very rarely read for pleasure and today, even Vogue remains unopened on the kitchen table, despite Kate Moss’s best attempts to lure me in.
There is, however, a lot to be said for a book that one can read in the bath and make no academic justification for. I thoroughly enjoyed Petite Mort, the debut novel by Beatrice Hitchman, in exactly the same way that I enjoy Gossip Girl: it is comedic, frivolous, well-dressed and, at times, knowingly ridiculous.
There is much about the book that is closely related to fable. The pre-war hedonism of Paris and the film studios where dreams were made and also shattered or suspended for those who didn’t make it, or who did and then were dropped. The self-exiled patriarch who likes technology and women, but also harbours secrets in his past that would make Don Draper wince. The similarly self-made heroine who uses the exploitive sexual appetites of others to her advantage and cleverly maneuvers herself up the social ladder. Names that appear in the text are also comically un-imaginative, particularly Mme Roux and Mlle Blanc – one small step away from Rouge and Blanc or, both ingredients in French cuisine.
This is, however, not a criticism. For as with a Tarantino movie, the stock characters and fairy tale elements are only put in place to then be cleverly smashed. For instance, Jack and Jill (or rather Andre and Luce) are not the true pairing in the book, because along comes Adèle and it is to her and Luce that the love story really belongs.
Perhaps this is one of the most historically accurate details of the book. For whilst it was probably common for women to sleep with their male superiors, surely it was also common for women, who spent most of the day shut away with other women, to sleep with women. And not just out of a ‘no-one else is around to fuck’ desire, but also because they fell in love with one another. Lesbianism has often been spared the worst of homophobic legislation or moralising simply because people refused to even believe it existed. And you cannot legislate against something that doesn’t exist. That the publicity for the book does not make any reference to, let alone attempt to sell the book just on this aspect of the narrative, is wonderfully refreshing. It situates lesbianism and bi-sexuality within a mesh of other activities, histories and plot twists – exactly as it should be, instead of being viewed as a something remarkable enough in itself to warrant one hundred percent focus on it.
Hitchman’s language is also far prettier and more deliberate than one would find in a book only comprised of stock characters and narrative. The opening lines to the book are particularly lovely and a subtle precursor of the later introduction of Luce – a name meaning light.
Light in a light box, light in your beloved’s eyes, is not as light as the morning sun filtering through the leaves. Light in the south moves differently; everything takes its time.
Petite Mort is a story that could be characterized as many things. It could be a love story. It could be a murder story. It could be historical fiction or it could be a story about escaping a backwater hometown and making it in the city. Hitchman particularly excels at evoking the feelings of this last element of the plot. When Adèle makes it to Paris she repeats ‘Look, look where I had got to’ and Luce puts a voice to the implication that Adèle’s relocation was very much escape when she closes a conversation on the subject with ‘But you got out’.
Equally, the book is as good as being escapism as it is on examining the concept. So when the final textbook is closed with a slam and sung across the room, remember what it was like to read for pleasure. Petite Mort, a welcome release.