Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Françoise Quoirez wrote Bonjour Tristesse at the young age of eighteen; at the time, she was only a year older than her narrator, the emotionally-turbulent Cécile. Quoirez invites readers into the complex mind of the narrator, explaining with the precision of personal proximity the tumultuous precipice on which Cécile finds herself. Cécile’s father, Raymond, is a widower reveling in his newfound bachelorhood. He is an attractive, charismatic man who woos women half his age; following her mother’s death, Cécile adapted to her father’s lifestyle, watching the ebb and flow of his much-younger mistresses with an uninterested eye. She has inherited Raymond’s pleasure-oriented motivations, a trait that her father has readily indulged. His permissiveness led her to reject what she views as “a bourgeois lifestyle.” Instead, she spends her time at parties in Paris, during which she seduces older men and pursues each momentary whim. The two live happily together, content to eschew emotional attachments and embrace life’s immediate pleasures.
At the beginning of the novel, Quoirez establishes the dynamic of Cécile’s unconventional home life. From there, she leads Cécile into a condensed bildungsroman, which takes place during an extended summertime holiday that Cécile, her father, and his current mistress, Elsa, take. The trio travels to the Mediterranean and rents “a large, white, isolated, beautiful villa.” While there, they spend their days amidst the cool waves and comfortable sands. In the first week of their holiday, Cécile meets Cyril, a twenty-six-year-old man with whom she quickly becomes involved because he embodies the maturity she finds attractive in her father’s friends.
It is a time of perfect, uninhibited pleasure to which Cécile, writing retroactively, longs to return. However, the arrival of Anne, one of Cécile’s mother’s old friends, shatters their peaceful stay. Anne is elegant and aloof, yet her seemingly unshakeable composure belies a deeply sentimental soul. Her presence rattles Cécile, who views the intelligent and poised older woman with both awe and fear. However, she knows Anne expects much of her and resents the older woman’s faith in her. Cécile also resents the pressure Anne places upon her to apply herself to her studies, as she sees them as pointless distractions. Moreover, Cécile is concerned by Anne’s unexpected interest in her father and worries about the conflict this may cause between him and Elsa.
Her fears come true when they take a trip to Cannes; that night, Cécile notices her father pays disproportionate attention to Anne and ignores Elsa completely. Irritated, for once, by her father’s womanizing, she threatens to tell Elsa of their liaison. The two react angrily and force Cécile to agree to say nothing. In the morning, Cécile informs a devastated Elsa of her father’s infidelity, and she leaves in tears. Shortly after, Anne and Raymond tell Cécile that they plan to get married, which stuns her. Anne very quickly adopts the role of stepmother, feeling obligated to encourage Cécile to pursue academics rather than Cyril. Cécile is embittered by what she sees as Anne’s imposition into her life and resents the banal life she imagines the three of them will go on to live. Cécile wishes to avoid slipping into comfortable mundanity, so she plots to rid herself and her father of Anne.
Cécile manipulates the forlorn Elsa and Cyril, whom Anne has forbidden her from seeing, into miming an affair. She knows that her father, who vainly fears feeling old and undesirable, will be driven mad if he thinks his former mistress has so quickly moved on with a much younger man. She knows her father well, so the scheme eventually succeeds; he pursues Elsa, and...
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Anne catches him kissing the younger woman. She is understandably devastated and rushes back to the villa in tears. Cécile sees the sorrow stamped into her characteristically composed face and realizes too late that she has harmed a person who, like her, has struggled through life. No longer an untouchable “entity,” Anne is a person with feelings, dreams, and desires. In an instant, Cécile understands the damage she has caused and attempts to backtrack, but her regret comes too late, and Anne drives erratically away.
Raymond returns to the villa and is devastated when he learns Anne has left. Hindsight has provided both father and daughter clarity, so they set to writing apology letters to Anne, begging her to return. However, their apologies are for naught: later that night, Raymond receives a phone call informing him of Anne’s death. Her car careened over the barrier in a dangerous part of the road, killing her instantly. Although both Raymond and Cécile call Anne’s death an accident, Cécile privately wonders if it was not in fact suicide. In the wake of Anne’s death, Cécile realizes that she never loved Cyril and leaves him. Cécile and her father return home and, after an adequate mourning period, return to their indulgent lives. Yet, Cécile’s life is not as carefree as it once was; often, in the darkness of the night, she thinks of Anne and experiences intense sorrow over the summer’s events.