The story around Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française is as at least as powerful as the story inside this highly praised French novel. Irene Nemirovsky was a successful and very popular novelist of Jewish descent who had immigrated to France before World War II. As Hitler's armies descended upon France in 1940, Nemirovsky hid in the countryside and wrote Suite Française to help calm her nerves. The novel is actually the combination of two short novellas and was supposed to be extended by three additional sections, which the author had outlined but never completed. The first section, called "Storm in June," tells the story of the panicked French citizens who poured out of France's largest cities into the countryside as they tried to escape from the German bombs. The result for many was disaster. People were killed along the way as the lines of refugees became easy targets for the German aircraft. Many of those who were not killed by bombs faced severe hunger as the crowds swamped food and other supplies in the small villages.

"Storm in June" follows the lives of five families in particular, most of them well to do. There are the Péricands, a successful businessman and his wife, Charlotte. Both of them come from very wealthy families. Monsieur Péricand's father and their five children are convinced that the best thing they could do was to travel to Charlotte's mother's home in the country. When they leave, their attitude is one of annoyance. However, along the way, their oldest son is murdered and the second oldest runs away to join the already defeated French army. Like so many others who are fleeing, the reality of the war begins to set in.

The other main characters in this story include Gabriel Corte, a famous French writer, and his mistress Florence, both of them spoiled by wealth. There is also the banker Monsieur Corbin and his mistress, who insists that Corbin take her with him. The train stations have been mobbed, so there is no other way for his mistress to get out of Paris.  This means that Corbin has no room left for his employees, Maurice and Jeanne Michaud, who leave Paris on foot. Maurice and Jeanne are the novel's more humble and compassionate characters.

The second section of this novel is called "Dolce." The story returns to a small village in France, a year later, after the Germans have occupied the country.  The story concentrates on two families, the Angelliers, who are well off financially, and the Sabaries, who are not. Through these two sets of characters, Nemirovsky presents various views of how French citizens deal with the occupying forces. Some naturally despise the troops who have killed or imprisoned their fathers, sons, and husbands. Others are more tolerant, seeing the Germans as human beings, though they remain wary of them.

Extended Summary

Suite Française begins with rumors that the German army has entered France. Paris's citizens deal with sporadic bombings, but no one seems to know how much real danger they are in. While they question their safety, families begin to pack their possessions and head out for country villages where they believe they will be safer. However, as German bombs begin falling directly on the city, the citizens begin to panic. The railroad station is mobbed, and the crowds have little chance of gaining seats on the trains. Then comes the news that the tracks have been hit, so the trains are useless.

After setting this scene, the narrator turns to specific families in Paris, most of them wealthy and ill prepared to leave. These families worry about their possessions. They cannot decide what to take with them and what to leave. They should have started weeks ago, because now it is too late to hide their treasures. They are sure that if the bombs do not destroy their houses, the Germans will loot them.

The Pericand family is typical of these rich families. The father is a successful businessman with very important connections with the government. He comes home one day, after having spent weeks of denying that his family should evacuate the city, and tells his wife that the Germans will soon be in Paris. They must leave quickly. The couple has five children. Philippe, the oldest no longer lives at home. He is a priest, often described by family members as being "not of this world." In other words, he is likened to a saint. While the Pericands chose the items they will carry with them, Philippe has been asked to lead a group of orphan boys out of the city and into a safer shelter. But when he accepts, the boys turn on him and stone him to death.

Meanwhile, the rest of the family pushes its way to Madame Pericand's mother's country home. Along the way, they forget Monsieur Pericand's aged father, who is confined to a wheelchair. The elder Monsieur Pericand dies in a nursing home. Hubert, the couple's second oldest son sneaks away from the family and tries to join the retreating French army. Hubert feels helpless as he does not understand anything about war. He ends up weakened by hunger and comes under the gentle hand of Arlette Corail, a dancer and former mistress of one of the other characters in this story. News of Hubert's death reaches his parents, and as they prepare a church service for him, Hubert...

(The entire section is 995 words.)