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Valérie Perrin’s third novel, Three, is named after its trio of central characters, Nina, Étienne and Adrien. It follows on the heels of two very successful novels from the Trouville-based writer. Her first, Les Oubliés du Dimanche, won the Chambéry First Novel Prize, the Booksellers Choice and no less than eleven other prizes. It was followed by Changer L’eau Des Fleurs, translated as Fresh Water for Flowers, a best-seller in both France and Italy while picking up the Maison de la Presse Prize, among others. Both Fresh Water for Flowers and Three have been translated by Hildegarde Serle and are published in translation by Europa Editions (5 May in the UK and 7 June in the US).
Fresh Water For Flowers, in particular, was celebrated for its delight in life and its celebration of what it is to be human. As you might expect, this was never any Heideggerian exploration of ‘Being’; it was more an evocation of touching moments and of those beautiful, often poignant artefacts that decorate our lives. Françoise Héritier wrote a delightful book that simply listed all the joy-giving auxiliaries of life, Le Sal De La Vie, whereas in Fresh Water For Flowers, Perrin set them to the rhythm of a novelised plot. And it was clever; by locating much of the action in a cemetery, she avoided sentimentality and maintained enough bitterness to keep it bitter-sweet – the signature flavour of poignancy.
As a result, the world gained a slightly better understanding of a curiously French proposition – that life itself can be lived with poetry; that even hardship and loss may be romanticised into the beauty of existence. This is not to see life through rose-tinted glasses, rather, if we wish to celebrate the beauty of life in an authentic manner, we have to accept and indeed celebrate the hardships along with the moments of joy. To truly celebrate life is to celebrate all of life. It is a feeling that Fresh Water for Flowers captured well, and the realistic depiction of its characters’ lives helped us as readers to see this as not merely an escapist experience of fiction, but as a plausible way of viewing life beyond the covers of a book.
In a similar manner to Fresh Water For Flowers, Perrin’s third novel follows characters from their school years into middle age, tracing the path from dream to disappointment as youthful optimism gets its fingers burnt to create middle-aged ennui. The ‘three’ of the title meet in fifth grade, pushed together by the alphabet, since their surnames all begin with B: Nina Beau, Étienne Beaulieu, Adrien Bobbin. But the story doesn’t start with these schoolkids in 1987, it starts with a narrative from Virginie who appears to be stalking Nina (in a benevolent sort of way) in 2017. Virginie confesses her fascination with the three and with a fifth character, Louise. This sets up a thriller-like structure. In switching between narratives from 1984 to 2017, Perrin creates a tension between what happened in the past and how it might, or might not, be resolved in the present. To maintain the shroud of mystery around these events she also, at various times, disguises the identity of the narrator. In the twenty-first century, the three have suffered some sort of cataclysmic falling out, even though in the eighties they were utterly inseparable. Étienne has become a police detective, Adrien meets with enviable (albeit anonymous) success as a writer, and Nina has taken refuge in an animal shelter. Virginie is a journalist with a mysterious past who, strangely, does not appear in any of the episodes from the eighties. How did all this come to be?
As far as the back-cover blurb is concerned, the central mystery of this novel is a car which, in 2017, is dragged from a lake and discovered to contain the body of a young woman. In the reading, however, while the car-in-the-lake nags in the back of your mind, the question of who is narrating, is much more insistent. It transpires that Three is more caught up with its own themes than its car-in-the-lake mysteries. The themes are, firstly, matters of identity – particularly sexual identity; secondly, what it means to care for friends and family, and thirdly the mistakes and misunderstandings that tear friendships apart. It is a matter of identity that resolves the question of the narrator, and which also explains an episode early on in the novel when a sadistic school-teacher bullies one of three. It is a matter of ‘caring’ that locates Nina in the animal shelter and it is mistakes and misunderstandings that break up the friendship just when all three friends should have progressed to study together in Paris.
Of those core themes, ‘caring’ is the most masterfully developed. As the three school-friends grow into maturity, Nina is seduced into marriage by a man who is good-looking and wealthy, but he is also spoilt, selfish and, as it turns out, misogynistic. Her marriage ruins the trio’s plans to study in Paris together, and inevitably turns bad. To escape her husband, Nina hides in an animal shelter, and the shelter becomes emblematic in Three, much in the same way as the cemetery was emblematic in Fresh Water for Flowers. There is a passage late in the novel when Nina is resolving her feelings about her dying, negligent mother, in which she offers a monologue about the animal shelter. She contrasts the work of someone who cares for strays with the broader society that seems to almost promote abandonment. The passage is set up brilliantly so that context alone gives the broader meaning to Nina’s observations. It is subtle, touching and brilliant. It should not be a surprise to learn that Perrin is personally involved in both the politics and practicalities of animal welfare.
However, when it comes to identity and the errors that can divide us, the novel’s indulgence in thriller-style plot-twists is a distraction. For her own part, Perrin has said she writes romance novels that are built like thrillers. Perrin has a beautiful talent for capturing the atmosphere of small-town France and she has a philosopher’s nose for the way in which our lives are really constructed, but the relationship between real life and a story arc is a complex matter, and the key to that complexity is very definitely not to be found in the structure of a thriller. Thrillers are genre fiction and all the more fictional because of it. We can accept the coincidence of a lost letter withholding vital information in a thriller; we can even accept the perfectly timed later discovery of that same lost letter, because that is the way that thrillers work. They are puzzle pieces, and we admire the skill of authors who construct the artifice. But if a novel offers with one hand a socio-realistic depiction of the prison-like nature of a bourgeois marriage to a domineering husband (as happens in Three), while playing thriller-novel card-tricks with the other, we, the readers, are likely to be confused and a little dissatisfied.
And Three is chock full of thriller-novel card-tricks, often at the expense of characterisation. Étienne’s wife Marie-Castille, is for the most part a well-drawn character but her passive behaviour in the closing chapters of the novel is utterly inexplicable. The only reason for her implausible response is that it allows events of the plot to be played out. Equally, Étienne’s earlier girlfriend Clothilde, makes such inconsistent decisions that under any sort of scrutiny at all, her character dissolves into a watery solution of plot device. However, the hardest flaw to overlook (and Perrin’s writing is easily good enough to invite you to overlook a few flaws), is the use of gender transformation as a cog in a plot of clockwork-like complexity. Without wanting to ruin the surprise for anyone who has not yet read it, if Three was a pure thriller novel, the deployment of a gender transformation to twist our perceptions would appear clever – almost brilliant – and that would be the end of the matter. But this is not genre fiction and Perrin has the ability to look into the very souls of her characters. At one point she actually employs the line, “the soul has no gender”; this is the material her writing engages with. She is capable of great empathy, as shown in the way Three approaches the theme of “caring,” so the fact that her transgender character always feels fictional is a disappointment,and the lack of insight and perceptiveness feels like a betrayal of the novel’s core values. We might choose to celebrate the fact that Perrin has included a transgender character as a worthwhile decision in itself, but having done so, it would have been so much more engaging if all the effort expended on plot twists, lost-letters, lake-dragging, dead-bodies and emotion-free suicides had been focused on illuminating some of the emotional realities of the transgender experience. With ‘caring’ a central theme, you have to question the decision to sacrifice so much characterisation on the altar of a complex storyline.
Ultimately, Three is a very engaging and rewarding novel to read. It is extremely ambitious and it’s a shame that some of those ambitions obscure Perrin’s finest abilities as a writer. She is already so successful that she might never feel the need to ditch the complexity (and fictionality) of contrived, complex plots, but I hope she does. If her fiction relaxes a little allowing events to be driven by character, then her writing, scented by her compassion and tinted with her natural perceptiveness, could deliver truly sublime literature.
By Valérie Perrin
Translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle
Europa Editions 512 pages
Andy Charman is an author and writing coach. His first novel, 'Crow Court', was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2021, and longlisted for the CWA Daggers Awards for Historical Fiction 2022. Andy is a Laureat of Festival du Premier Roman de Chambéry 2022 and his short stories have appeared in 'Every Day Fiction', 'The Battered Suitcase', 'Cadenza', 'Ballista' and other periodicals and websites.