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Last Updated on June 5, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

Published in 1984, L'Amant (The Lover) is a novel based on the real-life story of its author, French writer Marguerite Duras. Though the protagonist, a 15-year-old girl, a remains unnamed, it's considered to be Duras herself: this short book is a kind of memoir based on her early years living...

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Published in 1984, L'Amant (The Lover) is a novel based on the real-life story of its author, French writer Marguerite Duras. Though the protagonist, a 15-year-old girl, a remains unnamed, it's considered to be Duras herself: this short book is a kind of memoir based on her early years living in Saigon. The story is told from the perspective of the girl, many years later, when she's looking back on her youth.

The story is set in French Indochina in the 1930s. The girl is on a ferry, traveling across the Mekong Delta. After a holiday with her family (a respectable family, but a family that's going through tough times, financially speaking—the girl's father is dead, and her mother is depressed), she's on her way back to Saigon, where she attends boarding school.

On the boat, she's approached by an elegant Chinese man who's young (but not that young; he's 12 years older than the girl). He offers her a cigarette and starts talking with her. He's wealthy, by all indications: at the end of the ferry ride, he's met by his chauffeur, and he offers the girl a ride in his limousine. The young man is revealed to be the heir to a great fortune.

The girl, thinking of her family's hardship, realizes that she stands to benefit from the fact that the Chinese man is attracted to her. She's afraid for her own future, and she accepts his advances. They become lovers, and the girl experiences a sexual awakening. But both the girl and the man are afraid of their relationship being found out; it would be scandalous, as she's underage, and there's a major social and racial gap between them. Still, the girl stays with the relationship, and the Chinese man helps to support her family. Her family guesses at the nature of the relationship, but they still accept his financial support, partly because they're desperate for it.

More people find out about the relationship, and as expected, the public reaction (particularly among the colonial French community) is not positive. The Chinese man's father demands that his son end the affair, or face being cut off from the wealth he's due to inherit.

The relationship between the lovers breaks off after about a year and a half, when the girl's family returns to France. The girl is 17. Back in France, she becomes a writer, marries, and has children.

Later, after the death of her younger brother—one of the brothers whom she lived with, along with her mother, back in Saigon—the girl (now a woman) looks back on her youth and remembers her Chinese lover. She receives a phone call from him, and he tells her he still loves her. The book ends with her own contemplation of the past, and her reevaluation of her own feelings for her former lover.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

The main plot of The Lover is the story of a fifteen-and-a-half-year-old French schoolgirl’s love affair with the son of a rich Chinese businessman in Saigon during the 1930’s. The novel is narrated by the girl herself, now an old woman and a successful writer. At the time of their first meeting, the girl’s father has been dead for about ten years. Her two brothers, seventeen and eighteen years old, live with their impoverished mother, who is the headmistress of the girls’ school in Sadec. In the novel’s first fully developed scene, in which the slightest details are described minutely, the girl is returning to Saigon—where she attends the French high school and stays at a state boarding school—after spending a school vacation with her family in Sadec. She is standing near the native bus she has been riding as it is being ferried across a branch of the Mekong River, as is the chauffeur-driven limousine of the young Chinese man, who is twelve years older than the girl and has just returned from spending two years studying in Paris. The young girl, “dressed like a child prostitute” in a red silk dress with a very low neck, gold lame high heels, and a man’s fedora, excites the young man’s interest, and he immediately offers to take her to wherever she wants to go in Saigon.

He shows up every day to pick her up at the high school and drive her back to the boarding school. One Thursday, he drives her instead to his flat in Cholon, the Chinese capital of French Indochina, where they make love for the first time. As time passes, the lovers become more deeply involved, though the relationship can never go beyond sexual intercourse: An interracial marriage would never be accepted by his father, who has already arranged that his son marry a young Chinese heiress, and the girl has no desire to marry at all. Sometimes she spends the night with him; sometimes she stays away from school all day. In the evenings, they dine at expensive Chinese restaurants, and when her mother and brothers come to Saigon, they all dine out together. Her family is too poor to refuse the evenings out at the young man’s expense but also too convinced of his racial inferiority to consider that the affair could be anything but a disgrace and a scandal for the girl and her family. They never acknowledge his presence or speak to him, not even to say hello or to thank him for the dinners. During these evenings the young girl finds herself acting toward him just as her family does. Her schoolmates, with the exception of Helene Lagonelle, also begin to avoid her as the affair becomes more widely known. The Chinese man in turn is constrained to hide the affair from his father, who is in control of all of his money and who would disinherit him if he were to marry a white girl.

The relationship ends after a year and a half, when the young girl leaves for France to finish her education. Sometime later, the young man obeys his father’s orders and submits to an arranged marriage with the wealthy Chinese girl. In the last scene of the novel, the young man, visiting Paris with his wife many years after World War II, telephones the narrator, now a well-known author, and tells her that he still loves her.

The novel also introduces several subplots in addition to the main story of the lovers, the two most important of which are the study of the relationships among the members of the girl’s family and the presentation of scenes and characters from occupied France during the war, particularly of the social life of some people who collaborated with the German forces.

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