Suite Francais, by Irene Nemirovsky is an unfinished book that still manages to tell an interesting and thoughtful story. The author wrote the book during World War II, but died before finishing it. Many of her notes are included in the back of the book, so the reader gets an idea of how the story ends, and is able to see Irene’s intentions and direction. The book as it was published is written in two parts –the author intended to include two more. As the first book begins, there is one event that sets the characters in motion: the Germans are coming to Paris. At least, that’s the rumor, and people are being encouraged to evacuate. Our characters are upper class, middle class, working class, and artist class (in this particular case, upper class artists). They care about themselves, their families, or their possessions. Most of them aren’t too excited about leaving, and would really rather stay. Through their eyes, we are given a glimpse of France at war. The exodus from Paris brings out the best and worst in people, and this section of the book is a study in contrasts, a series of juxtapositions.
The second part of the story focuses a little more sharply on one provincial town that is newly occupied by German forces. Its’ a picture of contrasts: there are those who hate the Germans, for this war, for the last war, for all that the war has done to destroy their life and families. But there are also those who are bored, and lonely, and who don’t see the enemy, but simply see men who are caught up in the machinations of something beyond themselves. They are simple soldiers…they follow orders, and go where they’re told, and war has not been kind to them either. Some villagers – particularly women – find company and even friendship with the soldiers. This second story ends in motion. A farmer has shot a German officer in cold blood, and is on the run. He goes to his aunt’s employer, Lucille Angellier, who has been friendly with the German officer quartered at her home, and from whom the farmer believes she can get travel papers that will smuggle him to Paris. Under a sense of national duty and loyalty, she agrees. She says she can contact a nice couple that stopped at their house seeking shelter during the Paris evacuation. This couple – the Michauds – are back in Paris, and Lucille believes they will be willing, if not happy, to return the kindness. The author’s notes mention that her intention was to further weave the stories of the characters in the first part with the fugitive farmer and Lucille. There was to be Communists, imprisonment, escape, and two people falling in love.
Despite the intense setting and subject matter, Suite Francais is a quiet book. I felt as though I was watching someone paint a painting in front of me of France during war, from the vantage point of regular people. Although I enjoyed the book, it was expectedly heartbreaking, made even more so by the contrasts the author painted between the beauty of every day and the devastation of war. Although there are some characters I was not sorry to step away from at the end of the book, there were several characters whose story I would have enjoyed reading more of.