Twenty-four-year-old Mathilde has abandoned her studies in art history for a job leaving anonymous negative comments on websites. One day she loses her bag in a café—a bag that happens to contain ten thousand Euros. When an unknown man returns it to her a week later, Mathilde becomes obsessed with the mysterious encounter.
Twenty-six-year-old Yann works as a sales assistant in a home appliances store while he waits for better days to come. He wouldn’t say he is unhappy. But sometimes, late at night, when he is crossing a bridge over the River Seine, he imagines jumping. One day he does a favor for one of his neighbors and is asked to stay for dinner as thanks. The following morning Yann throws caution to the wind and decides to change his life entirely.
These two novellas by bestselling author Anna Gavalda are among her most moving and inspiring. Life, Only Better is a touching, cleverly crafted book about choices and their consequences.
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Tina Kover's published works include the Modern Library translation of Georges by Alexandre Dumas pére, The Black City by George Sand (Carroll & Graf), and Maurice G. Dantec's Cosmos Incorporated and Grand Junction. In 2009 she received a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship for the translation of Manette Salomon by the Goncourt borthers.
Read an Excerpt
A café near the Arc de Triomphe. I almost always sit in the same spot. In the back, to the left, behind the bar. I don't read. I don't move. I don't mess with my cell phone. I'm waiting for someone.
I'm waiting for someone who isn't coming, and I'm bored, so I watch the sun set over the Escale de l'Étoile.
Last co-workers, last drinks, last stale jokes; slack water for almost an hour, and then Paris finally stretches its legs. Taxis idle; girls come out of the woodwork. The boss dims the lights, and the waiters get younger. They put a little candle on each table — fake ones, that flicker but don't drip — and pressure me discreetly: have another drink, or beat it.
I have another drink.
This is the seventh time (not counting the first two) I've come to this dive to drink among the dogs and the wolves. I know because I've kept every single one of my bar tabs. At first I must have thought they'd make a nice souvenir; then I guess it was just habit, or some kind of fetishism, but now?
Now I know it's so I'll have something to grab onto when I put my hand in my coat pocket. I mean, if these pieces of paper exist, it proves that ...
That life is dear, here by the Unknown Soldier.CHAPTER 2
One o'clock in the morning. Still no luck. I'm going home.
I live near the Montmartre cemetery. I've never walked so much in my life. I had a bike — named Jeannot — but I lost it the other day. I'm not sure when, exactly. After a party at the house of some people I didn't know. They lived over by the Gare Saint-Lazare, I think.
Some guy had taken me back to his place. I was fine until we were in bed, and then I wasn't. The cat's litter box, the patterns on his quilt, the Fight Club poster above the Ikea bed ... I ... I just couldn't.
I held my liquor better than expected.
It was the first time that had happened to me; sobering up in one fell swoop like that, and it upset me. I'd have liked it, anyway — to just let go a little bit. I liked that. You could do worse than Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, as third wheels go. But my body let me down.
How was it possible?
My pretty body.
I wouldn't have admitted it then, but tonight, after all these miles of solitary walking, and this emptiness, and this nothing, and this lack of anything, of everything, everywhere, all the time, I can admit it. It was him.
He was the parasite, and I saw his energy-sucking for what it was, for the first time, between those ugly sheets.
Nude and disappointed, my back to the wall, I was puzzling over it when I heard a voice thickly reassuring me:
"Hey, you can stay anyway, okay?"
If I'd had a gun in my hand I'd have blown his head off for that anyway, for the contempt, the favor he was doing the bitch who hadn't sucked him off.
I quivered with it. On the stairs, and out in the street, and while I looked for my bike under the streetlights. Quivered with rage. I'd never felt like that before.
My mouth tasted like puke, and I spat on the ground to get rid of it.
But I can't work up a gob of spit worthy of the name, and so I ended up drooling on myself, on my sleeve and my pretty scarf, and that was fine, because how else could I explain so much hate?
I was only living the way I deserved to, and I was living ... anyway.CHAPTER 3
My name is Mathilde Salmon. I'm twentyfour. Officially, I'm still a student in art history (the beautiful lie), but in real life I work for my brother-in-law. The rich, handsome, cool one. The one who's always rubbing his nose and never wears a tie. He runs a big digital design agency for web branding and development (translation: if you've got some shit to sell and you want to peddle it on the 'net, he'll whip you up a pretty storefront with signposting straight to the (secure) checkout), and he enticed me into working for him last year.
He needed someone to work for him and I needed spending money. It was my birthday and we shook hands over a drink. Could have been worse, as contracts go.
As a student, I get all kinds of price reductions at the movies and in museums, gyms, and restaurants that cater to the universities — but since I spend most of my time in front of a computer screen now, my IQ has gone way down. I'm making too much money to go back to student dining halls. I don't take advantage of any of that stuff very much anymore.
I work at home, at my own pace, and off the books. I've got a thousand names, a thousand addresses, a thousand pseudonyms, and at least that many avatars, and I write comments as phony as the day is long.
Think of the ticket inspector at the Lilas Metro station. Always the exact same spiel, right? I write the same stuff so often that I know it by heart.
J'fais des com', des p'tits com', encore des p'tits com',
Des com' d'seconde cla-a-ss-eu,
Des com' d'première cla-a-asse ...
I get sent endless lists of sites followed by the notes "ruin them" or "praise only" (if it's cool it's always in English, in the digital world). It's basically all about tearing down potential clients and then building them back up again, before splashing positive reviews all over the discussion forums and giving them the best possible Google references — after they've forked over enough cash, of course.
I'll give you an example. The company Superyoyo.com manufactures and sells super yoyos, but their website is total crap (for proof of this, see all the snarky comments left, dropped, shared, Yelped, tweeted, poked, tagged, requested, pinned, unliked, un-loled, or chatted everywhere you can think of by Micheline T. (me), Jeannotdu41 (myself), Choubi_angel (I), Helmutvonmunchen (Ich), or NYUbohemiangirls (yours truly and moi, dude), and voilà, total panic in Yoyoland. But as it turns out, Mr. and Mrs. Yoyo, who have been informed of my brother-in-law's wizardry thanks to a strategy as twisted as it is brilliant (too long and boring a story to tell here), fall for it and come begging: they absolutely have to have a brand-new shiny website! It's a matter of life or death for the business! So my brother-in-law, the great master, graciously agrees to help them, and three weeks later, a miracle! All you have to do is type "yo" or "yoy" in a search engine and bam, Yoyoland pops right up (it doesn't if you only type "y"; not yet, anyway, but we're working on that day and night). And then, another miracle! Micheline T. orders ten of everything for each of her six grandchildren; Jeannotdu41 is thrilled and is going to sing the praises of Superyoyo in all the yoyo hot spots in the world; Choubi_angel says they're the coolest thing ever; Helmutvonmunchen vants to be a retailer uff dese yo-yos SCHNELL, and NYUbohemiangirls are sooooo excited cuz yoyos are, like, sooooo French!
And that's it. That's all I do. I leave comments. And my brother-in-law, from his huge apartment in the 16th Arrondisse-ment, looks to diversify again.
It's a fake good plan, not a real one, I know. I'd be better off finishing (starting) my master's thesis, "From Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands to Paul Jouanny: the history and design of watercolorists' trailers and other vehicles used by open-air painters" (quite a mouthful, eh?) or thinking about my future, my biological clock, and my retirement plan, but tough shit. I lost my faith somewhere along the way, and maybe I just want to live in the open air, too.
Because, I mean, everything's rigged. Everything's just comments. The ice caps are melting, and the rich are only getting richer while the small farmers are hanging themselves in their barns, and they're taking away the public benches to keep the bums from sitting on them. Frankly, I don't see why I should break my back to get ahead when the world's this fucked up.
So to forget it all, I play along with my brother-in-law and Larry Page: I lie from dawn 'til dusk, and I dance from dusk 'til dawn.
Well, I used to dance. These days I tighten my belt and hang around in the moonlight waiting for a guy who doesn't even know I'm waiting for him.
It's total bullshit.
I must really be lost insecure softhearted, to have gotten to this point.CHAPTER 4
Pauline and Julie D., the two girls with whom I share a 110 m2 apartment on Rue Damrémont, are twins. One of them works at a bank and the other one works for an insurance company. Rock 'n' roll attitude, man. We have zero in common, which is the secret of our successful cohabitation: I'm at home when they're not, and by the time they get home I'm gone.
They keep track of the bills and I sign for their packages (some PayPal bullshit). I bring home croissants and they take out the trash.
Yeah, they're a bit airheaded, but I'm really glad they picked me to play the part of their roommate. They'd organized a series of auditions, like In Search of the Next Practically-Perfect Roommate (my God) (what an extravaganza) (yet another unforgettable episode in my crazy misspent youth) and I was the Chosen One, though I've never really understood why. At the time I was a ticket agent — and not only that, a guard, too! A security guard! At the Marmottan Museum. And I think the influence of good old Monet worked in my favor, because surely a neat and tidy young woman who spent so much time among the Water Lilies must be respectable.
Like I said, a bit airheaded.
This little stint in Paris is just something for them to put on their résumés. They don't really like it here and can't wait to move back to Roubaix, where Mommy and Daddy and their cat Tickles still live, and where they run off to as often as possible. So I'll take advantage of my good luck (a great apartment all to myself every weekend, and the stock of neatly-folded microfiber baby wipes they keep under the sink, so handy for cleaning up my friends' vomit) until they decide to move back to the country for good.
Well, let's say I used to take advantage of it. Now ... I'm not so sure. They're really starting to get on my nerves — they wear Isotoner ballerina slippers around the house and listen to Chante France at breakfast; it's hard sometimes — but I'm well aware the real problem is me. They're always quiet, making sure to turn the volume down when I start to get lost in the steam from their instant coffee. I've got nothing to reproach them with.
No; I and no one else am to blame for my own trouble. It's been almost three months now since I enjoyed anything, or went out, or had a drink.
Since I went wrong.
* * *
Three months ago, the apartment was still a construction site.
It was in a bad state of repair, and Pauline (the less scatterbrained twin) had convinced our landlord to let us renovate the place in exchange for a suspension of the rent equivalent to the final cost of the project (a complicated way of putting it that I didn't come up with, I can assure you). Pauline and Julie were as excited as little kids about the whole thing, making lists of prices, drawing up plans, leafing through catalogues, and requesting loads of quotes, which they spent whole evenings discussing while sipping herbal tea. I wondered if maybe they'd both chosen the wrong profession.
All the commotion had irritated me, and I'd been forced to leave the apartment in search of peace and quiet, churning out comments in my brother-in-law's beehive instead, alongside all the Geeks, Version 2.0 — not ideal, but better than our place, where the electricity left a lot to be desired (my computer screen flickered if we turned on the stove), the paint was flaking, and the bathroom wasn't exactly convenient (we constantly had to step over an old bidet). I didn't take responsibility for anything, and when the girls suggested to me that we pay for the renovations in cash to get back the VAT (at least!) and ingratiate ourselves with Mr. Carvalho (businessman, Freemason, sly old fox, and in way over his head), I didn't need to be asked twice.
I'm not timid when it comes to those things, either.
Why am I telling you all this? Because without the subtle blackmail of that man, so "overrrrwhelmed" by his social benefits charges; without the sudden VAT increase on the building, and without our greed — all of us, but him most of all — I wouldn't be here, in this depressing neighborhood, waiting and watching for my nonexistent someone.
This is what happened.CHAPTER 5
A café near the Arc de Triomphe. I was sitting in the back, to the left, behind the bar. I wasn't reading. I wasn't budging. I wasn't messing with my cell phone. I was waiting for Julie.
My roommate, the one who works at BNP (or BNP Paribas, as she's always careful to say), and who's calculating everything that can be divided up among us, down to the smallest decimal point (rent, utilities, bonuses, contracts, tips, detergent tabs, firefighters calendar, toilet paper, shower gel, welcome mat, and so on and so forth and even more ridiculous).
We'd agreed to meet late that Friday afternoon in a bar close to where she worked. It had annoyed me a bit to go all the way across Paris just to please her, but I knew she had a train to catch, and besides, I was the ... uh, let's just say "least hardworking" ... of the three of us.
She was supposed to give me their two-thirds of the money for our favorite tax-evading mason, whom I was meeting the next morning. A nice fat envelope stuffed with 10,000 euros in cash.
Well, anyway ... it was Versailles.
I'd decided to take advantage of the afternoon playing hooky to hit the shops; back then I was still a petite brunette, as normal as you could possibly imagine — stupid, happy, shallow, and extravagant — and while I waited for Julie I went nuts over frilly handbags, accessories, beauty products, and countless pairs of impractical shoes perched all around me on the moleskin bench.
I'd shopped miles of windows, and now I was sipping a mojito to get myself under control.
I was exhausted and completely broke. Shamefaced and deliriously happy.
The girls would understand.
* * *
She arrived right on the dot in her little mouse-grey suit. She didn't have time for a drink; well, okay, fine, but just a mineral water. She waited for the server to leave, glanced around warily, and finally pulled an envelope out of her messenger bag, handing it to me with the mournful look bank tellers always get when they're forced to give you any money.
"Aren't you going to put it in your purse?" she asked worriedly.
"Oh — yeah, yeah, of course. Sorry."
"It's quite a bit of cash, that's all."
Watching me stir the mint leaves around in my drink didn't seem to make her feel much better. "You'll be careful with it, won't you?"
I nodded gravely (poor thing, if only she knew. It would take more than a little rum and lime juice to turn my head) and stuffed the money into my bag, which I kept in my lap to reassure her.
"It's all in hundreds. At first I put it in one of the bank's envelopes, but then I realized that wasn't very discreet. Because of the logo, you know. So I changed it."
"Good thinking," I said, nodding.
"But I didn't seal it, so you could put in your share."
"Perfect." She still wasn't relaxing. "It'll be fine, Julie," I sighed, slipping the strap of my purse over my head. "Look, just like a Saint Bernard, see? The charming Antonio will get his money, I promise. Don't worry."
Her mouth twitched a little, in a smile or maybe a sigh; hard to tell. She reached for the check.
"Leave it; it's on me," I said. "You'd better go, or you'll miss your train. Give your parents a hug for me and tell Pauline her package came."
She stood up, threw one last anxious look at my beat-up carrier bag, belted herself into her trench coat, and left almost regretfully for her weekend at home.
Only then, in that café near the Arc de Triomphe, sitting in the back, et cetera, did I reach for my phone. Marion had left me a message asking if I'd splurged on the little blue dress we'd spotted together the week before, and if I was still overdrawn on my bank account, and if I had any plans tonight.
I called her back and we giggled like crazy. I told her about my haul — no little blue dress, but a to-die-for pair of heels, some adorable barrettes, and the most gorgeous undies — yeah, a bra like the ones from Eres, with cups like this and straps like that, and these fantastic little panties — I swear! — not expensive at all and just too cute, yep, you know, the kind that say you're really a minx under those conservative clothes, blah blah blah, hee hee hee, ooh la la.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Life, Only Better"
Copyright © 2014 e dilettante.
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