Françoise Sagan, born Françoise Quoirez, was a child of a well-to-do family, educated at convent schools and at the Sorbonne. She failed her second-year examination to qualify for a higher academic degree at the Sorbonne, and in what she has suggested was an effort to placate her parents, she spent the summer writing Bonjour Tristesse (“Hello sadness”). She was only eighteen years old. The novel’s seventeen-year-old heroine, Cecile, narrates the story, which has been praised for its mature style, its perceptiveness of human character, and Sagan’s fine portrayal of an adolescent’s emotional confusion. The brief, 125-page novel was a huge commercial success, with more than 810,000 copies sold in France by 1958 and more than one million copies sold in the United States. It has been translated into twenty languages and was awarded the prestigious Prix des Critiques. Sagan’s lighter, escapist novel was a welcome change from the more profound, more philosophical or metaphysical writings of some of her literary predecessors. With this first and her subsequent novels, she was soon considered the spokesperson for a “particular brand of French upper-middle-class ennui.”
Divided into two parts, the novel first introduces Cecile; her worldly, amoral father, Raymond; and his mistress Elsa in Part 1. Cecile as narrator reveals herself as simultaneously intelligent, sophisticated, and naïve. As is true of many self-absorbed teenagers, she is familiar with many aspects of grown-up behavior while naïvely unaware of what mature life is really all about—although she thinks she knows all she needs to know and has seen it all. When Anne Larsen comes on the scene, a surprising side of Cecile is revealed. Though no more self-absorbed than most, her exposure to one kind of grown-up living under her father’s casual tutelage has caused her to be imprudent and selfish. She becomes manipulative and even perverse in her desire to reassert her position in her father’s affections and, lacking that, to stop the marriage between Anne and her father.
Part 2 expands this newly revealed side of Cecile, showing her evolving into an even more conflicted personality. She changes from moment to moment, from being a child longing to win back or hold onto the favor of a beloved parent, or surrogate, as Anne has been to her in the past, to being a crafty schemer with no scruples. Her ambivalence toward all the other major characters keeps her in shifting states of disquiet. By the time Anne’s tragic demise occurs, a reader has likely run the gamut of feeling about Cecile, from liking and disliking and being disappointed to feeling a vague optimism that she could turn out to be the person one hopes she is.
Cecile’s characterization is so well drawn that this young girl with all her flaws is completely believable. She is the recognizable teenage girl, motivated by the love she has for her father and by the jealousy his relationship with Anne has provoked. Twenty-first century readers may not be as shocked with Cecile as were the readers of the 1950’s. Most, however, will still be drawn to her typically teenage need to...
(The entire section is 790 words.)