At its best, The Prime of Life is a hymn to individual freedom and to the importance of the intellect, an invaluable description of the French intelligentsia’s way of life in the 1930’s and during World War II. It lacks the unity of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, which succeeded in rendering the maturation of a sensitive and brilliant young girl struggling for self-definition in a repressive household. Instead, Beauvoir here uses a wide range of techniques to describe the beginnings of her career as a teacher and writer, her alliance with Sartre, the vie de bohème the pair lived until the war, and their conversion from romantic individualism to political commitment.
Beauvoir divides her narrative into chronological periods that vary from whole school years to weeks-long holidays to weekends with Sartre. She frequently summarizes her latest conclusions about life at either a chapter’s beginning or end. These are, more often than not, views that are jointly held with Sartre. Occasionally, however, she does distinguish between their temperaments: He was more at home with abstractions than she, more detached than she in expressing feelings, more devoted to literature, and indifferent to external nature.
Both agreed that, absent a God, they trusted only themselves. As for the world at large, “We counted [until World War II] on events turning out according to our wishes without any need for us to mix in them personally.” They accepted no external limitations, no overriding authority, no imposed pattern of existence. They rejected not only religion but also the secular disciplines of Marxism and psychoanalysis. The myth that Beauvoir believed in was that of romantic spontaneity. She moved from one exuberant emotion to another, exulting in what Sartre was to term “perfect moments” of insight. In The Prime of Life, she pays tribute to the tumultuousness, rebelliousness, and vitality of youth and seeks to postpone adult responsibilities as long as she can, refusing to admit that her life need recognize any will but hers, and disdaining such bourgeois habits as marriage, family life, and the acquisition of material possessions.
The dominant note in Beauvoir’s book is her uncompromising honesty about herself. She invites the reader to share her extraordinary clarity of self-perception about both her virtues (a splendid mind, an acute sensibility, high moral principles, integrity, and courage and gusto for experience) and her faults (a lack of humor or wit, a drive to intellectualize all behavior, a brusque rudeness to persons she considers mistaken or inferior, and a tendency to sermonize). Altogether, the book is an admirable testimony to crucial stages in the life of one of the century’s great women, who lived to test her mind.