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la maison des sept jeunes filles

30 december 2010

I read somewhere that La maison des sept jeunes filles was Georges Simenon's least favorite of all his books. I read it anyway because (1) I happened to own a copy; (2) I'm a completist; and (3) what do authors know, anyway? But it's dismaying to think that any author, by definition, must have a least favorite book. Probably better if you were Simenon and typically wrote a book in six weeks, and over 250 in your lifetime.

I enjoyed La maison des sept jeunes filles, but I'll say this: it's the least typical Simenon I've ever read. That's probably why its author didn't like it, if the story of his dislike is true. He was trying to do something that just wasn't "him," and though he did it creditably, he regretted the attempt.

La maison des sept jeunes filles is more like a Balzac novella than one by Simenon – though without Balzac's acidity. Guillaume Adelin is a Norman history teacher with seven unmarried daughters and a mortgaged house. The mortgage-holder, a retired cheesemonger named Rorive, stops by every day to remind Adelin that his payments are late. The one ray of hope in the situation is that Huguette, one of the middle daughters, is perhaps about to be engaged to marry the wealthy Gérard Boildieu.

But Gérard gets cold feet, and Rorive calls in his mortgage. A domestic crisis! With her mother a cipher and her eldest sister Roberte overwhelmed by keeping house, the only capable member of the Adelin household is Coco, one of the two youngest twin sisters. She has about a day to placate Rorive, latch onto Gérard, and raise 60,000 francs.

In other words, chick lit before its time. To find that Georges Simenon indulged in chick lit is rather like finding that Mickey Spillane wrote greeting cards. One keeps expecting one of the Adelin sisters to turn up gruesomely murdered in the back room of an estaminet. But really, nothing of the sort even threatens, and the whole scenario is played for laughs.

Despite the humor and the happy ending, the Adelin family is akin to the braves gens of many a Maigret novel, keeping up appearances despite the decay of their means. Adelin père sets the tone:

On sentait qu'il avait pris le résolution de donner à ses enfants une leçon de stoïcisme . . . Faire comme si on avait faim . . . Comme si c'était égal à tout le monde qu'on vendit la maison, les meubles et tout . . . On faisait même comme si la soupe était bonne, alors que la pauvre Roberte y avait mis trois fois trop de sel. (116-117)

[You felt that he'd decided to give his daughters a lesson in stoicism. . . . Act like you have an appetite. . . . Act like it was fine that the house was being sold up, furniture and all. . . . Even act like the soup was good, although poor Roberte had put three times too much salt in it.]
In a different Simenon novel, there would be some crime behind the façade. Here there's just romance. It's the same world, but a view thereof that Simenon almost never took.

Simenon, Georges. "La maison des sept jeunes filles." 1951. In La maison des sept jeunes filles. Paris: Gallimard, 1969. 7-150.