Chapters 1-3 Summary
The novel opens with Antoine Rey waiting nervously in an Emergency Room following a very serious automobile accident. Antoine is desperate to know the status of his sister, Mélanie, who was driving the car when they had the accident. With the nurse unable to relay any pertinent information, Antoine imagines how he would explain to his family that his sister is dead. Finally, Doctor Besson, a warm and sympathetic female surgeon, arrives to let him know that Mélanie has survived and inquires more about the accident. Suddenly, Antoine realizes that Mélanie was about to tell him something important she remembered right before the crash.
The story flashes back to the beginning of Antoine’s trip with Mélanie. As she sleeps beside him in the car, he recalls surprising her with a getaway weekend for her birthday. He has planned the getaway to help distract her from a devastating break-up with her boyfriend, Olivier, as well as her high-pressure publishing job. Antoine also recalls his divorce from his ex-wife, Astrid; he found out she was having an affair with Serge (with whom she now lives) when he discovered a sex video on her camera. Despite the nature of their parting, and Antoine’s active dating and sex lives, he finds himself still in love with Astrid. When the sleepy Mélanie wakes up, she tries to guess where they are going for her birthday trip. When she correctly guesses Noirmoutier, she reveals some reservations about returning there. The brother and sister have not been there since 1973, when Mélanie was six. It was the last summer they spent with their mother, Clarisse.
As they approach the island of Noirmoutier, Antoine recalls his childhood visits there with the rest of his family: Clarisse, his mother; his hard-working father Francois (who only came out to the island on the weekends); his father’s spinster sister Solange; and his patrician grandparents, Robert and Blanche. Antoine remembers his fascination with the Passage du Gois, a submersible road that used to be the only way to access the island. Prior to leaving on the trip with Mélanie, Antoine rediscovered a book given to him by Clarisse detailing the numerous deaths caused when the quick-moving tide caught people on the Gois. Despite the completion of a permanent bridge, many still used the Gois to get to the island. As they enter the island, Antoine is dismayed to find it more populated, particularly with tourists. Mélanie, who was only six when they last visited, begins to recall more information about the island—especially the Gois.
Chapters 4-13 Summary
Antoine and Mélanie walk from their hotel to the beach (Plage des Dames). As they arrive, Mélanie sees landmarks she remembers from her childhood and both of them reminisce about what it was like to be there as children. When Mélanie goes for a swim, Antoine pretends he forgot his swimsuit because he is embarrassed about having gained weight since his divorce while Mélanie has remained trim since her break-up. Antoine reminds Mélanie about Père Benoit, the gardener who used to work at the hotel. He used to regale Antoine will all of the many tragedies, particularly the Saint Philibert disaster. The Saint Philibert was a luxury ship that capsized in a storm shortly after a visit to the Plage des Dames. Mélanie confesses that being back at the beach has brought back lots of memories about their long-deceased mother. Both of them acknowledge that the family currently has strained relationships. Antoine and Mélanie’s father had a falling-out with Solange after Robert’s death; now, Solange and a servant, Gaspard, look after the aged Blanche’s nursing care. Mélanie wonders how Clarisse got along with all of them; she suspects that both she and Antoine will remember more as their vacation continues.
In a brief interlude that appears to be epistolary, a woman (who seems to be Clarisse) pines for an unseen paramour; she worries that her mother-in-law might know something about her secret.
At lunch, Antoine and Mélanie discuss their largely unsatisfying sex lives: his disdain with sexually aggressive younger women and her surprising affair with an older married man. Sex causes Antoine to think of his sexually active son, Arno, and his preadolescent daughter, Margaux, both of whom have grown distant since the divorce.
In another written interlude, Clarisse again speaks to an unseen lover whom she hopes to see tomorrow.
After lunch, Mélanie and Antoine recall their uptight upbringing (particularly by...
(The entire section is 580 words.)
Chapters 14-19 Summary
Clarisse writes of a secret tryst during a power outage at her daughter’s birthday celebration. She speaks longingly of their next sexual encounter and wonders if they can make a new family with her children. She asks for the correspondence to be destroyed.
For the last night of their getaway, Antoine treats Mélanie to a fancy dinner. She is less than thrilled with turning forty and wonders if she will ever find someone and get married. She also presses Antoine to move on from his divorce. The dinner ends awkwardly when a sixty-something man mistakes Mélanie for her mother. Antoine and Mélanie leave without telling the man that their mother has been dead for decades.
Clarisse writes to her lover, who is departing for Paris by train, leaving the note under the door (instead of their usual hiding place). She expresses her longing and again asks for the note to be destroyed.
The last morning of their visit finds Antoine watching the Gois disappear under the tidal surf. When Mélanie appears, she is obviously distraught and Antoine wonders whether contact (or lack thereof) from Olivier or her married lover is the cause. He also dreads the return to his boring office, with his difficult, matronly assistant, Florence. Mélanie only brightens when they pack up the car and head off the island.
After a rest stop, Mélanie asks to drive and they switch places. Antoine recalls how difficult it was for her when their mother died. As a small child, she did not understand, and had frequent nightmares which her family was ill-equipped to handle. She tells Antoine she needs to tell him something she remembered. Suddenly, she loses control of the car. Antoine recalls the sounds and sights of the terrible accident, hearing his sister’s screams before he blacked out.
The story flashes forward to the hospital scene of the first chapter. Doctor Besson informs him that his sister ruptured her spleen and fractured several vertebrae, nearly dying. As the doctor examines Antoine to make sure he is alright, he sees flashes of the accident: pulling himself out of the wreckage and calling to his unconscious sister. Reluctantly, he calls his father, Francois, to inform him of the accident. After their conversation, Antoine mulls over his father’s complete disappointment with him, his career, and his life choices. Three years after Clarisse died of an aneurysm, Francois married Regine, a social climber who gutted their home and redecorated it in a modern style. The children were raised strictly, not allowed to show any emotion. In 1982, Regine gave birth to Josephine, who quickly displaced Mélanie and Antoine. Antoine recalls Francois and Regine’s wedding, and marvels that his father seemed to have no real feelings for her at all.
Chapters 20-22 Summary
After a poor night’s sleep, Antoine checks in on Mélanie who remembers nothing about the accident. Shortly after, their father, Francois, shows up and tries to bully Dr. Besson into moving his daughter to Paris, which is still too risky. Francois is surprisingly emotional as he greets Mélanie. Reflecting on his own hospital visits with his children, Antoine realizes that they both know what it is like to worry about an ailing child. Antoine notes the difference in his father before and after Clarisse’s death. The close relationship they had when Antoine was a boy has given away to cold, terse relations and endless criticism. Antoine reluctantly calls Astrid to tell her and the kids about the accident. Later, Antoine’s half-sister, Josephine, shows up and shows an unexpected interest in Antoine and Mélanie. Because of the large age difference, Josephine has never been particularly close to either of them. She asks Antoine to talk about his mother since it is a forbidden topic with Francois and Regine. Just as they seem to be warming to each other, Josephine asks Antoine for money (she does not want to ask her parents). Despite feeling duped, Antoine agrees, provided that it is a loan, not a gift.
Antoine escapes to a nearby café as he awaits Astrid’s arrival with the children. Having taken smoking up again since he divorced, Antoine takes any opportunity he can to smoke. As he waits, he pictures the house that he and Astrid bought and remodeled over the course of their marriage. Antoine considers it the perfect house and cannot bear to think of Astrid living there with Serge and the kids. He links his meek, quiet acceptance of the end of his marriage to a childhood in which controlling one’s feelings was privileged above all else. When Astrid arrives, they are all emotional, and Antoine can barely disguise his feelings for her. They visit a fragile-looking Mélanie, who is overjoyed to see them. Antoine leaves them alone, keenly...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Chapters 23-26 Summary
After his end-of-the-day visit with Mélanie, Antoine runs into Angèle Rouvatier, the attractive hospital worker who shared his cigarette and some flirtatious glances earlier in the day. She is straddling a Harley Davidson motorcycle and Antoine is immediately intrigued. After some awkward banter, the two decide to go for a drink, which quickly turns into a sexual liaison in Antoine’s hotel room. Antoine is nervous at first, but Angèle proves to be a skilled and forceful lover. Afterwards, as they make small talk, Angèle points out Antoine’s self-deprecating tendencies, as well as his attempts to suck in his potbelly. The biggest surprise is that Angèle reveals her specific line of work at the hospital: she is a mortician,...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
Chapters 27-32 Summary
At the end of a busy week, Antoine goes to visit his father. He wants exercise, so he decides to take on the longish walk to the house he grew up in. Along the way, he receives a call from Rabagny, a difficult client who is unhappy with the slow progress on a day care center due to open at the end of the summer. He is relieved to hear continued reports from Valerie about Mel’s progress, and he has also been receiving texts from Angèle. As he approaches his moneyed old neighborhood, he notes the numerous changes in the decades since he has lived there, mostly commercial ones. Ignoring more irate messages from Rabagny, he heads up his old street to his father’s house.
After exchanging pleasantries with an overtanned...
(The entire section is 655 words.)
Chapters 33-36 Summary
While searching for a bottle of wine in his cellar, Antoine comes across an old photo album. He is especially moved to see pictures from his childhood, including ones of Clarisse. He comes across the plane ticket from the flight when he first met Astrid; they were attempting to land in a particularly violent storm, and she grabbed his hand for reassurance. He also remembers one of their first vacations as a married couple. They traveled to San Francisco and visited the famous prison, Alcatraz. Antoine muses that for much of his life, he has felt like a prisoner.
It is a few weeks before Christmas, and the fall has flown by. Arno is in danger of being expelled from school and Margaux has become increasingly withdrawn....
(The entire section is 419 words.)
Chapters 37-40 Summary
Margaux stays with Suzanne and Patrick, Pauline’s parents, to help her grieve. As a weary Antoine returns home, he receives an urgent message from his sister, who demands to see him write away. Mélanie expresses sympathy about Pauline and then admits that she remembered what she was going to say right before the crash. The night of her birthday party, Mélanie got up for a drink of water and stopped by her mother’s room. In it she saw her mother in bed with someone who is not her father (presumably the lover previously mentioned in Clarisse’s writings). Antoine is shocked when Mélanie reveals that their mother was in bed with another woman. Since Mel was only six, she only vaguely remembers what she looked like. The two vow...
(The entire section is 517 words.)
Chapters 41-44 Summary
The day before Pauline’s funeral, Antoine meets with Xavier Parimbert, a wealthy feng shui expert. Parimbert turns out to be the father-in-law of Rabagny, the hothead who gave Antoine such a difficult time on the daycare center project. Ironically, Parimbert selected Antoine for this new project not only for his architectural prowess, but for his ability to stand up to Rabagny (whom Antoine finally told off after one disagreeable rant too many). For a handsome fee, Antoine is to build a Think Dome in Parimbert’s office complex. The new-agey seriousness of Parimbert’s intentions almost gives Antoine his first laugh since Pauline’s passing.
The entire family travels to the countryside for Pauline’s funeral. The...
(The entire section is 518 words.)
Chapters 45-49 Summary
Mélanie and Antoine go to see their aged grandmother, Blanche, hoping to find answers about their mother. After Mélanie secretly snoops around the house with no luck, the two question Gaspard, the son of Blanche’s maid, who now runs the apartment building and helps look after the old woman. When Gaspard lets slip that he saw their mother carried out on a stretcher, the two realize she must have died in Blanche’s house, not her own. They demand answers, and Gaspard insists they retire to his room on the sixth floor to discuss it.
Gaspard was fifteen when Clarisse died; she had always been kind to Gaspard and taken an interest in him, and he still feels affectionately towards her. Clarisse had turned up unexpectedly...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Chapters 50-53 Summary
Antoine goes to an exhausting meeting with Parimbert about the nearly completed Think Dome; during the visit, Rabagny appears and offers Antoine a contract to take his Think Dome layout global. After the meeting, Antoine drives to the home of Laurence Dardel, a female doctor whose father was the doctor who was called when Clarisse died. During a tense exchange, Laurence reveals that she knows Francois has cancer because he first developed it in 1982. Like Dr. Besson, she can tell it has come back by his appearance. Antoine demands to see his mother’s medical record and death certificate, which Laurence seems reluctant to provide. She promises to call Antoine when she locates the file.
Antoine stops by the private...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapters 54-56 Summary
Antoine receives a letter from Donna, which includes some photographs and correspondence between Clarisse and June. It also includes a Super 8 reel, which Antoine has converted to a DVD, but not watched. While taking the train to see Angèle, the locomotive strikes something and stops abruptly. When he texts Angèle about the delay, she responds that it was most likely a suicide and not “technical difficulties.” Two ticket agents confirm the suicide: a woman knelt on the tracks as if praying and the high-speed train could not stop in time. They acknowledge that the messy cleanup means they will be stranded there for several hours.
In the dining car, Antoine shares a drink with an elderly Englishwoman who reveals...
(The entire section is 441 words.)
Chapters 57-60 Summary
As Antoine continues the story, a different version of the events plays out. Antoine imagines the confrontation between Blanche and Clarisse escalating. When Blanche tries to prevent Clarisse from leaving, they struggle, and Clarisse falls and strikes her head on the corner of a table. Dr. Dardel is called and counsels Blanche to concoct the aneurysm story. Angèle asks if it is the truth, and Antoine admits it is his best guess. A few weeks earlier, had visited his father, determined to have it out with him about his illness and find out what he knew of the affair; however, when he sees his dissipated, sickly father he finds he cannot ask him, nor can he tell him he loves him. The two part in silence once again, leaving Antoine to...
(The entire section is 588 words.)