THE LOVER is a frugal mosaic of a book. In it, the author juxtaposes various aspects of her life, dwelling on a scene from her childhood, jumping suddenly to the present or near past, then finding her way back again. The central story of the novel tells of a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl living in Indochina before the war. Her father is dead, her mother worries about money. The girl has two brothers, the older, a monstrous egoist, the younger, lovable and sensitive.
One day, on a ferry across a branch of the Mekong River, the girl meets a wealthy Chinese man in a limousine. Urbane, almost feminine, the man gives the girl a ride to school. Soon after, he takes her to his posh modern home. She knows all along that he is intensely attracted to her. Coolly, almost without feeling, she asks him to make love to her, and he does.
The remainder of the novel deals with the effects of this love affair on the young girl. At boarding school, the girl finds herself saturated in a heavy sensuality, wanting to devour a naive girlfriend the way her Chinese lover devours her. The heroine’s family is almost accepting of the love affair, because the Chinese man has money. They allow him to take them out for expensive meals, during which they treat him as if he is a specter sitting among them. Ultimately, it is the Chinese man’s father who disapproves.
By focusing its attention so raptly on the girl and her devoted suitor, THE LOVER manages to evoke a heavily sensual atmosphere, rich with exoticism and laced with despair. Everyone has a sense of doom, from the miasmic, frustrated family of the girl to the trembling, refined lover. Cryptic and fatalistic, Duras offers neither an analysis of race relations in Indochina nor a bracing, lively narrative. Rather, she has boiled the material of her novel down to its essence. It is a scant brew but a heady one.
Annan, Gabriele. “Saigon Mon Amour.” New York Review of Books, June 27, 1985, 11-12. Concisely restates many of the major critical arguments both for and against the novel.
Callahan, Anne. “Vagabondage: Duras.” In Remains to Be Seen: Essays on Marguerite Duras, compiled by Sanford Scribner Ames. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Readable scholarly essay that celebrates The Lover as a groundbreaking...
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