Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1253
A Very Long Engagement begins in January 1917, during World War I. Five French soldiers are being marched to the battlefront on the Somme. They are prisoners, having been condemned to death for shooting themselves in the hand to avoid military service. Their names are Kléber Bouquet (Eskimo), Francis Gaignard (Six-Sous), Benoît Notre-Dame (That Man), Ange Bassignano (Common Law or Nino), and Jean Etchervery (Manech, also known as Cornflower).
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In August 1919, Manech's fiancée Mathilde visits Daniel Esperanza, a former army sergeant who is dying in a hospital. He tells Mathilde everything he knows about what happened to the condemned men. He was in charge of escorting them to the frontline trench called Bingo Crépuscule. His orders were that the men were to be thrown over the trench, with their hands tied, into the no-man's-land between the French and German trenches. He arranged for the condemned men to send letters to their loved ones. Then they were sent over the trench. Esperanza does not know exactly what happened after that, since he was transferred to another regiment, but he heard that all five prisoners were killed.
The White Widow
The wheelchair-bound Mathilde studies the information that Esperanza left her. She reads the copies he made of the men's letters and also reads a letter from Captain Favourier to Esperanza dated Sunday, January 7, which says the five men are still alive and he hopes to receive an order to bring them back at nightfall. Mathilde tries to piece the puzzle together. From Aristide Pommier she gleans some information about Manech as he was awaiting trial. She sees Esperanza again and suspects he is withholding information from her. She suspects That Man's letter is not what it appears.
The Good Old Days
Mathilde writes to the wives of the dead prisoners. She meets Six-Sous' s wife and receives letters from the village priest in That Man's town and Madame Conte, who is Tina Lombardi's godmother. Conte says Tina received official notice that Common Law was killed in action January 7, 1917. Mathilde visits the bar owned by Little Louis, a friend of the Eskimo, who tells of how his friend was also declared killed in action. Louis tells of a quarrel between the Eskimo and his girlfriend Veronique Passavant, and between the Eskimo and one of his closest friends, a man known as Biscuit. Mathilde wants to believe that the Eskimo, a tough character, protected Manech and saved his life.
Queen Victoria's Tuppence
Pierre-Marie Rouviàre has at Mathilde's request discovered more information. A casualty list dated Monday, January 8, 1917, lists all five men as dead. But there is no evidence they were killed in the manner Esperanza says, and the lawyer knows that there was an official pardon for the men on January 2. Even though Pierre-Marie tries to convince Mathilde that Manech is dead, she is not convinced. She publishes an advertisement in the newspapers, asking for information. She believes that a casualty list can be altered and that at dawn on Sunday, January 7, all five men were still alive.
The Mahogany Box
Mathilde receives a letter from Veronique Passavant, saying that she believes the Eskimo is still alive, although she has no evidence. The mother of Urbain Chardolet tells Mathilde that when her son saw the five men lying in the snow, one or perhaps two were not the person or persons he expected to find. This gives Mathilde hope. Benjamin Gordes's wife Elodie writes to say that Gordes was killed January 8, 1917, in a bombardment. Mathilde learns that Gordes is the man named Biscuit and that in 1916, Gordes and the Eskimo quarreled over a woman. Mathilde suspects that Gordes later had some influence on his former friend's fate.
The Woman on Loan
Elodie Gordes explains what happened between herself, her husband, and Eskimo in 1916. The war was hard on Benjamin Gordes. He told his wife that if they could have another child, making six in all, he would be discharged from the army. But alcohol had made him impotent. He suggested that she allow his friend Kléber, the Eskimo, to make love to her when he came home on leave. After Elodie and Kléber did this, the two men quarreled. Mathilde also guesses that Veronique Passavant, who was living with Kléber, walked out on him because of his affair with Elodie. Mathilde also learns from Pire, her private detective, that the five men were buried by British soldiers and then interred two months later at a cemetery in Picardy.
The Mimosas of Hossegor
Mathilde and Manech first met in June 1910, when Mathilde was ten years old and Manech thirteen. Their love grew steadily, and Manech scratched the letters MMM in a poplar tree near the lake where they swam together. The letters stand for Manech's Marrying Mathilde. In 1921, Mathilde buys the land on the shore of the lake, where her father builds her a large villa. The family makes a pilgrimage to Manech's grave. Mathilde receives an anonymous letter saying that Célestin Poux is dead.
The Terror of the Armies
Poux is convinced Manech was killed by machine-gun fire from a German plane, although he did not witness it personally. He describes the fates of the other men and the battle that took place that weekend. He asserts that the letter That Man wrote to his wife is in code, something Mathilde has suspected. They discuss Chardolet's comment that one or possibly two of the bodies were not who he expected. Poux believes that if any of them survived, it would have been That Man.
The Other Side of No-Man's-Land
Mathilde visits the former battlefield, which is now a huge freshly mowed field. At dinner, she meets Heidi Weiss, whose brother, a German soldier, was killed at the same trench at the same time as Manech. Weiss confirms that from what she was told, Manech was killed by fire from a German plane. Mathilde also hears via a newspaper report that Tina Lombardi has been executed for killing French military officers.
The Lovers of Belle de Mai
Mathilde receives a letter from Tina, written from Tina's prison cell. Tina explains that she killed the officers because they harmed her lover Nino. Like Mathilde, Tina had been searching for the truth of what happened to her lover. She provides information that fuels Mathilde's hope that Manech may still be alive.
The Sunflowers at the End of the World
With more information from Weiss, Mathilde is close to solving the mystery. She cracks the code That Man used in the letter he wrote to his wife. She finally finds That Man in a village called Bernay. He explains everything that happened, including how he managed to survive. He helped Manech away from the battlefield and thinks there is a good chance he survived.
Lieutenant-General Byng at Twilight
Mathilde learns that Manech is still alive, living under the name of Jean Desrochelles. He has amnesia and can remember nothing of the war. He lives with the mother of a soldier named Jean Desrochelles, who was killed in the war. The identity discs of the two men were switched. Desrochelles's mother went along with the deception, since her real son was dead and she needed someone to care for. Mathilde meets Manech, and although he does not recognize her, there are hints their romance will flourish again.
Ten soldiers from Newfoundland arrive at the Bingo trench on Monday, January 8, 1917. They find the five dead soldiers and bury them.