This is the second installment of de Beauvoir’s autobiographical series. It begins on a note of relief at her emancipation from her rigidly conservative family and ends on an even higher note of joy at France’s deliverance from German Occupation. Dominating the work is de Beauvoir’s friendship and alliance with Jean-Paul Sartre.
In July, 1929, she was a philosophy student at France’s most distinguished university, the École Normale Supérieure, when she met Sartre, a fellow student, while preparing for comprehensive orals. By the fall they had begun a friendship that was to become a lifelong union. They agreed that, while theirs was an “essential” love, it should not be allowed to degenerate into constraint or mere habit; nor should their partnership prevent them from experiencing contingent affairs with others. By the mid-to-late 1930’s they had become the core couple, while teaching philosophy in Paris, of a group they termed “the Family.” This was a social network of current and former students, friends, and lovers. It took the place of marriage and children for de Beauvoir and Sartre.
The 1930’s were extremely active for de Beauvoir. She read voraciously in literature as well as philosophy and frequented, usually with Sartre, theaters, cinemas, art galleries, cafés, jazz clubs, and many lively, long-lasting parties. Often to the urban Sartre’s discomfort, she loved to hike and climb rocks, touring most European countries. As World War II approached and then engulfed her, Sartre, and their friends, she and Sartre abandoned their apolitical individualism. Nazi atrocities convinced them, by mid-1939, that they needed to commit themselves to political action and social concerns. After some largely unsuccessful Resistance work, however, they decided to concentrate on their writing and made their literary reputations during the German Occupation. With the Allies’ entry into Paris in the summer of 1944, de Beauvoir ends her book by expressing an ardent appetite for further challenges that the world may offer her.
At its best, The Prime of Life is a hymn to individual freedom and to the importance of the intellectual life. The dominant note of de Beauvoir’s book is her uncompromising honesty about herself. She reveals her many extraordinary virtues: a splendid mind, acute sensitivity, high moral principles and conduct, courage, and a zest for virtually all experiences. She also displays her flaws: a lack of humor, wit, or tolerance, a tendency to intellectualize all behavior, and an inclination to sermonize. The book is an admirable testimony to crucial stages in the life of a great woman.