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January 1917: five French soldiers are marched to their own front lines where they will be tossed out into no man's land with their hands tied behind their backs and left for the Germans to shoot. They were, in civilian life, variously a pimp, a mechanic, a farmer, a carpenter, and a fisherman; now they are condemned because each had sought to leave the war by shooting himself in the hand. Taken to a godforsaken trench nicknamed Bingo Crépuscule, the five are reluctantly sent out into the darkness; days later, five bodies are recovered and the families are notified, merely, that the men died in the line of duty.
August 1919: Mathilde Donnay receives a letter from a dying man. In it, the former soldier tells her that he met her beloved fiancé, the fisherman Manech, shortly before he died. Mathilde goes to meet Sergeant Daniel Esperanza at his hospital and there hears the story of the execution. She also receives a package with a photograph of the men and copies of their last letters. As Mathilde reads and rereads the letters and goes over Esperanza's tale, she begins to suspect that perhaps the story didn't end quite so neatly. And so begins her very long investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of five condemned prisoners--one of whom, at least, might not really be dead.
In Mathilde Donnay, Sebastien Japrisot has created one of the most compelling and delightful heroines in modern fiction. Though confined to a wheelchair since childhood, "Mathilde has other lives, varied and quite beautiful ones." She paints, cares for her pets, enjoys a rich fantasy life, and is relentless in her search for the truth about Manech's death. But she is by no means the only vibrant personality leaping off Japrisot's pages. This author has a remarkable ability to draw even minor characters in three dimensions with economy and wit. Take Mathilde's mother, for instance, caught in mid-card game: "At bridge, manille, bezique, Mama is a dirty rotten swine. Not only is she an ace with the pasteboards, but she throws her opponents off their mettle by insulting or making fun of them." And even the characters we meet only through other people's memories--the condemned men--are so fully realized that you find yourself torn over which one you hope may have survived. As Mathilde comes ever closer to solving the mystery of what happened at Bingo Crépuscule that January morning in 1917, Sebastien Japrisot proves himself a master storyteller and A Very Long Engagement a near perfect novel. --Alix Wilber
| AUTHOR: || Sebastien Japrisot |
| CATEGORY: || Book |
| MANUFACTURER: || Plume Books |
| ISBN: || 0452272971 |
| TYPE: || Fiction, Fiction - General, France, Love stories, Military discipline, War & Military, World War, 1914-1918 |
| MEDIA: || Paperback |
| # OF MEDIA: || 1 |
Customer Review of A Very Long Engagement
Well worth the time....
I confess that I feel just a bit stingy in offering only four stars to this book, because I cannot identify a single area in which it is lacking. Japrisot's story is both moving and entertaining, the characters are richly developed and easy to care about, and the events described seem completely credible.
I guess I find myself comparing it to books like ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which is, of course, grossly unfair. For one thing, it could reasonably be argued that those books are among the best written in the twentieth century, and how fair is it to judge every new novel on its ability to measure up favorably to such a standard? Secondly, although ENGAGEMENT is about the First World War, it is more accurately read as mystery/love story.
My favorite thing about this novel is the way in which Japrisot offers the reader an opportunity to form quick intitial judgements about many of the characters, and then slowly provides the reader a deeper understanding of these individuals and their motives as the book progresses. I found that, by the end of the book, I liked almost everyone involved in this story. Perhaps not a "great" book, but certainly a very good one - and a damned sight better than most of what has proven to be publishable/marketable over the last fifteen to twenty years.
Convoluted, but oh so worth the effort
I made the mistake of starting this book, misplacing it, finding it, and discovering I couldn't pick up where I'd left off and had to start at the beginning again. It's just not a book to read casually. You've got to concentrate and pay attention and read long chunks at a time.
Dissatisfied with the official account of her lovers death in WWI, crippled artist Mathilde sets out to learn the truth. Here's the deal: five soldiers were condemned to death for self-mutilation. The manner of their execution was odd: they were forced into the no-man's-land between the French and German lines and left to fend for themselves. Everyone assumed they would all quickly die, but it seems at least one didn't . And there's confusion about his identity. And there's the fact that one of the buried men was wearing German boots, so what's that all about?
A spellbinding and enchanting story, Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement is a little of everything: history, mystery, romance, intrigue, and all done in a splendidly literary style.
This book was translated from the French, which may account for a small bit of the obscureness of the writing. But oh boy, is it worth sticking with it. If you're not smokin' anything, not drinkin' anything - if you're paying attention all the time, you're in for a superb reading experience.
Monodimensional characters kill an otherwise decent book
The plot is a sort of mystery, decently realized. The fact that it's entwined with WWI makes it somewhat novel (forgive me).
But the flatly drawn characters all but kill the story. There's little growth, little development -- for all their experiences, all the characters seem to remain the same as when they were first introduced in the novel. And what's worse, the lead character is almost saccarine sweet -- so much sentimentality!
The writing itself is decent, but not good enough to overcome the poor characterization and the sentimentality.
Great literature it is not.
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