One of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Works of fiction in 2018
Marie is the prettiest girl in her provincial high school, and dating the most popular boy in town. She is the envy of all her peers—and she loves it. But when she gives birth to Diane, things begin to change. Diane steals the hearts of all who meet her, inciting nothing but jealousy in her mother.
This is Diane’s story. Young and brilliant, she grows up learning about life through her relationships with other women: her best friend, the sweet Élisabeth; her mentor, the selfish Olivia; her sister, the beloved Célia; and, of course, her mother. It is a story about the baser sentiments that often animate human relations: rivalry, jealousy, distrust.
Revered throughout Europe, Belgian novelist Amélie Nothomb has won numerous prizes, including the French Academy’s Grand Prix. In Strike Your Heart, she offers a telling adult fable about womanhood and the mother-daughter bond.
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About the Author
Amélie Nothomb was born in Japan to Belgian parents in 1967. She lives in Paris. Since her debut on the French literary scene, she has published a novel a year, every year. Her edgy fiction, unconventional thinking, and public persona have combined to transform her into a worldwide literary sensation. Her books have been translated into over twenty-five languages and been awarded numerous prizes including the French Academy's 1999 Grand Prix for the Novel, the René-Fallet, Alain-Fournier, and Jean-Giono prizes.
Alison Anderson's translations for Europa Editions include novels by Sélim Nassib, Amélie Nothomb, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. She is the translator of The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Europa, 2008) and The Life of the Elves (Europa, 2016), both by Muriel Barbery.
Read an Excerpt
Marie liked her name. It wasn't as ordinary as one might think; it gave her everything she wanted. When she told people her name was Marie, it had a certain effect. "Marie," people would echo, charmed.
The name alone was not enough to explain her success. She knew she was pretty. Tall, with a good figure, her face lit with a blond radiance: she did not leave people indifferent. In Paris she might have gone unnoticed, but she lived in a town that was far enough away from the capital not to be considered a suburb. She had always lived there, and everyone knew her.
Marie was nineteen, and her time had come. She could sense that an extraordinary destiny awaited her. She was studying to be a secretary, which did not sound like much — but you had to study something. The year was 1971. Wherever you went, you heard: "Make way for the young."
She went to parties in town with people her age. When you knew people, there was a party almost every night, and Marie didn't miss a single one. After a quiet childhood and a boring adolescence, life was beginning. "From now on, I'm the one who matters, at last it's my story, it's not my parents', or my sister's." Her older sister had married a nice young man the previous summer and was already a mother. Marie congratulated her and thought, "The fun's over, old girl!" It was a heady feeling, attracting people's gazes, making the other girls jealous, dancing until dawn, going home at daybreak, showing up late for class. "Marie, you've been out on the town again, haven't you?" asked the teacher, with mock severity every time. The ugly ducklings — unfailingly punctual at school — shot her looks full of rage. Marie sparkled, her laughter luminous.
If anyone had told her that belonging to the gilded youth of a provincial town augured nothing out of the ordinary for her, she would not have believed it. She wasn't planning anything, per se, she just knew that it would be tremendous. When she woke up in the morning, she could feel a powerful summons in her heart, and she let herself be borne along by her enthusiasm. The new day promised events, their nature as yet unknown. She cherished this impression of imminence.
When the girls in class spoke about their future Marie would laugh to herself: marriage, children, a house — how could she ever be content with that? How foolish to give words to one's hopes, and such petty words to boot? Marie did not name her anticipation; she savored the infinity of it.
At parties she liked it when the boys paid attention to no one but her. She, meanwhile, was careful not to show a preference for any one of them — let them all turn pale with fear they might not be chosen. Such a delight to have them all buzzing around her, coveting her, yet never gathering the nectar!
There was an even more powerful joy: arousing jealousy in others. When Marie saw the girls looking at her with such painful envy, her mouth went dry with pleasure. Greater still than this sensual delight was what those bitter gazes indicated: the story being told now was her story, her narrative, while the other girls were long-suffering extras, nothing more, invited to the feast to dine on the crumbs, destined for a tragic death from a stray bullet — in other words, from a burning sensation that was not meant for them.
Fate was concerned with Marie alone, and it was this exclusion of third parties that brought her such supreme, smug satisfaction. If anyone had tried to explain to her that the other side of jealousy was jealousy itself, or amounted to as much, and that there was no uglier sentiment, she would have given a shrug. As long as she was dancing, the center of attention, with a pretty little smile she could bluff her way.
The most handsome boy in town was called Olivier. Slender, with dark, Mediterranean looks, he was the pharmacist's son and would be following in his father's footsteps. He was kind, funny, and helpful, and liked by all, boys and girls alike. Marie did not fail to notice this last detail. All she had to do was show up, and bingo: Olivier fell madly in love with her. Marie relished the fact that it was so obvious. Now when the girls looked at her their painful envy turned to hatred, and she thrilled to the pleasure of their gaze.
Olivier misjudged the nature of her trembling, and believed himself loved. Overwhelmed, he dared to kiss her. Marie did not turn her face, but merely gave a sidelong glance to verify the abhorrence in which she was held. The kiss, for her, coincided with the sovereign triumph of her demon, and she moaned.
What followed thereafter obeyed a mechanism that was a hundred thousand years old. Marie, who had been afraid it might hurt, was astonished to feel so little, except at the moment when everyone had seen them go off together. For the length of one night she loved incarnating woman's last best hope.
Hopelessly happy, Olivier did not hide his love. Now that she was a prima donna, Marie was radiant. "What a lovely couple! How well suited they are!" people said. She was so happy that she believed she was in love. Her parents' smiles enchanted her less than the ugly moue she saw on the lips of her peers. What fun, to be the star of this hit film!
Six weeks later she was singing another tune. She ran to the doctor, who confirmed what she had been dreading. Horrified, she shared the news with Olivier, who immediately put his arm around her.
"My darling, that's wonderful! Marry me!"
She burst into tears.
"Don't you want to?"
"Yes," she said, through her tears. "But I wanted things to be different."
"What does this change?" he replied, joyfully embracing her. "When two people are as in love as we are, children come very quickly, anyway. Why wait?"
"I would have preferred no one suspect anything."
He took this for modesty, and found it very touching: "They won't suspect a thing. Every single one of them has seen that we are madly in love. We'll get married two weeks from now. You'll still have the waistline of a young girl."
She fell silent, having run out of arguments. She worked out that fifteen days would not be enough to prepare the spectacular celebration she had been yearning for.
Olivier presented their parents with the fait accompli. He did not hide the reason for their urgency, which filled both mothers and fathers with enthusiasm:
"You didn't waste any time, kids! This is great, there's nothing like being young for having a baby."
"Sheesh," thought Marie, who put on a show of pride, in the hopes they would believe in her happiness.
The wedding was as perfect as any nuptials could be, given the haste. Olivier was exultant.
"Thank you, my darling. I've always hated those banquets that go on for hours and where you invite all these uncles you've never met. Thanks to you we are having a true love wedding, with a simple dinner and an evening spent with our closest family and friends," he said, as he danced with her.
The photographs showed a young man beside himself with joy, and a young woman with a forced smile.
Those who attended the ceremony were genuinely fond of the young married couple. No matter how closely Marie scrutinized their faces, she could not find a single expression of envy of the kind that might have convinced her that this was the most beautiful day of her life. She would have preferred to have had an enormous do with lots of jealous onlookers, malicious friends of friends, and neglected eyesores ogling a different wedding dress — not the one she was wearing, a simple affair that her own mother had worn.
"Can you imagine, at your age I was every bit as thin as you!" Marie's mother had cried on discovering that the post-war design suited her daughter so well.
Marie thought her remark was despicable.
The young couple moved into a pretty town house not far from the pharmacy. The bride would have loved to choose her furniture, but already by the second month of pregnancy she was overwhelmed by crushing fatigue. The doctor assured her that this was quite usual, particularly with first pregnancies. What was less normal was that her exhaustion lasted the full nine months.
She awoke only to eat, because she was constantly famished.
"I've stopped going to class, it's a pity," she said to her husband between two mouthfuls.
"In any case, you're far too intelligent to be a secretary," he replied.
She remained puzzled. She had never planned on being a secretary. For her, whether she studied shorthand or agronomy it was all the same. And besides, what did Olivier mean by "intelligent?" She refused to go into it any further and went back to bed.
There was something vertiginous about being able to sleep whenever she wanted. She would lie down and feel the abyss of sleep open beneath her, she would surrender to the fall and did not even have the time to think about it before she instantly disappeared. If it weren't for her appetite, she would never have woken up.
In her tenth week she began to crave for eggs. She called Olivier when he was already at the pharmacy:
"Make me some soft-boiled eggs. Seven minutes, not a second more or less."
The young husband dropped everything to run home and boil the eggs. They couldn't be made ahead of time, because soft-boiled eggs will continue to cook until they are eaten. He peeled them delicately and took them on a tray to Marie in her bed. The young woman devoured them with terrifying delight, unless he'd been distracted and had cooked them for seven and a half minutes — in which case she would shove them away and say, "It's stifling" — or six and a half minutes — in which case she'd close her eyes and moan how disgusting they were.
"Don't hesitate to wake me up in the middle of the night if you want some," said Olivier.
An unnecessary injunction: she did not hesitate. After eating her eggs she went back to sleep. It didn't take a genius to diagnose a case of sleep escapism, even if none of those close to her understood this. On the rare occasions when Marie was not asleep and indulged in thought, she would conclude, "I'm pregnant, I'm nineteen years old, and my youth is already over."
Then the abyss of sleep opened again, and she was relieved to sink into it.
While she ate her eggs, Olivier gazed at her tenderly and sometimes asked her whether the baby was kicking. She said no. The baby was very discreet.
"I can't stop thinking about him," he said.
She was lying. For nine months she did not have one thought for the baby. Which she was right to do, because if she had thought about it, she would have despised it. Some instinctive precaution wanted her to experience pregnancy as a long absence.
"Do you think it's a boy or a girl?" he asked, from time to time.
She shrugged. If he suggested a choice of name, she turned it down. He respected her decision. The truth was that when she tried to focus on the baby, it didn't last a second. The baby remained radically foreign to her.
The birth was like an abrupt and unpleasant return to reality. When she heard the newborn baby's wailing, she was stunned: thus, all this time, she had actually contained someone.
"It's a little girl, Madame," said the midwife.
Marie felt nothing, was neither disappointed nor pleased. She would have liked for someone to tell her what to feel. She was tired.
They placed the child on her belly. She looked at it, wondering what sort of reaction they expected from her. Just then Olivier was allowed to come in and join her. He displayed all the emotions she was supposed to feel. Overcome, he kissed his wife and congratulated her, then, with tears in his eyes, he took the baby in his arms and cried, "You are the loveliest little girl I've ever seen in my entire life!"
Marie's heart froze. Olivier showed her the infant's face.
"Darling, look at the masterpiece you have created!"
Marie summoned her courage to gaze at the creature. The baby was dark, with black hair half an inch long. She had none of the red rashes that are so common among newborns.
"She looks like you, as a girl," Marie said. "We should call her Olivia."
"No! She's as beautiful as a goddess. We'll call her Diane," decided the young father.
Marie ratified her husband's choice, but once again her heart froze. Olivier placed the baby in her arms. She looked at her child and thought, "It's not my story anymore. It's yours."
It was January 15, 1972. Marie was twenty years old.
The little family went home. In the morning, Olivier gave Diane her bottle then left for the pharmacy. When Marie found herself alone with her daughter, she felt uneasy, and was at pains to understand why. She tried to look at her as little as possible. Changing her was not a problem. It was the baby's face that bothered her. When it was time for her bottle, Marie looked away the entire time.
She had visits, particularly in the beginning. Friends came by to see Diane. Every time, they lavished her with exclamations: "She's so beautiful! Unbelievable, such a gorgeous baby!" Marie tried to hide the pain she felt. What hurt most was the way her parents fell head over heels for their granddaughter.
"You've managed to have a baby who's even lovelier than you are!" said the grandfather.
His wife noticed that their daughter pursed her lips. She refrained from complimenting her, but Marie could see the adoring gaze her mother bestowed on Diane, and it grieved her.
She waited impatiently for the visits to be over. When the guests were gone, she put the infant in her cradle where she could not see her. She lay down on the bed and gazed at the ceiling and thought, "It's over. I'm twenty years old and it's already over. How can youth be so short? My story lasted only six months." It went round and round in her head. If only she could fall asleep, the way she had when she was pregnant! She no longer had the leisure to disappear, she had to face reality — it was an expression she had read somewhere, and she didn't understand what it meant, other than that it must be something unbearable.
But Diane was a good little baby. She only cried at birth. Otherwise, not a peep. She smiled at everyone who looked at her. "How lucky you are," people said to Marie.
When Olivier came home from work in the early evening, he found his wife and daughter in bed, silent, a few yards apart. Where the infant was concerned, this didn't worry him, it seemed normal.
"I'm tired," Marie invariably replied to his worried inquiries.
"Do you want me to hire a nanny?"
His wife refused, wary at the thought of a stranger in the house.
"Your mother doesn't work. We could ask her to look after Diane," Olivier suggested one day.
Marie got angry.
"Why don't you say it, you don't think I'm capable of looking after my own child."
In fact, she knew that was what her mother would think.
The young father went to pick up his daughter, and he melted: she smiled as she made chirping noises. Olivier came out with one declaration of love after the other: "My beauty, my treasure, my joy!" He covered her face with kisses and did not notice that Marie was turning extraordinarily pale. He gave Diane her bottle and put her back in her cradle.
"My darling, you're so pale!" he cried, when he noticed his wife.
"I'll never have the strength to make dinner," she murmured.
"Let me take you out to eat!"
"We can't go out," she replied, gesturing with her chin at the cradle.
"Would you like me to call the babysitter?" "I'll take care of it."
She was always careful to call Madame Testin, who was fifty-five years old and wore trifocals. She had to restrain her laughter when Madame Testin spoke to her daughter at close range and she saw the little girl sweetly turn her face away from the woman's bad breath.
At the restaurant, Marie was lively and regained some of her striking arrogance. The waitresses' envious glances did her the most good. She had chosen a restaurant where the waitress had been in her class at the lycée, because the cruelty of the comparison was a comfort to her.
Alas, her gallant Olivier spoiled the evening, saying, repeatedly, his voice dripping with love, "My love, I will never be able to thank you enough for our daughter."
Marie lowered her gaze to hide her vexation. Her husband was moved by what he took for modesty.
In the long run he grew worried. Months went by and the young woman was still not her old self. The girl he had married possessed a lust for life, but where had it gone? He would question her, but her answers were often evasive.
"Would you like to work?" he asked her one day.
"Yes. But it's impossible, since I dropped my studies."
"You're far too intelligent to be a secretary anyway."
"You already said that. So I'm intelligent enough for what, then?"
"I could use an accountant at the pharmacy."
"What do I know about accounting?"
"You could learn. I'm sure you'd be very good."
"And the kid?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Strike Your Heart"
Copyright © 2017 Éditions Albin Michel, Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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