My predominant response to this novel is ambivalence. As I began it, I was so impressed I emailed a friend to indulge in enthusiastic hyperbole. As I progressed, I felt an oppressive ennui. Then the action of the novel began to move apace and delivered a twist ending that I really ought to have expected. Perhaps Alard meant this novel to be a comedy in its more mediaeval sense. Someone in my reading group mentioned a review that suggested farce, but it’s too heavy for farce and in the middle passages, too slow. I must admit, however, that after we had discussed the book, my reading group discovered that the work did elicit a lot of discussion about contemporary mores. Just what does constitute betrayal? I felt that Pinter’s Betrayal handled the subject more effectively.
Set in 2003 the year after the National Front performed so well in the French Presidential elections, Couple Mechanics presents an instantly recognisable milieu of young professionals unable to afford to buy in the city the same kinds of homes in which they themselves were raised. Juliette and Olivier have chosen “the Nineteenth Arronndissement the only neighbourhood in central Paris still accessible to the thirtysomething first-time-buyers they were at the time” (6) as the place to raise their children, despite the risk of syringes in the schoolyard. The challenges of navigating the school system await; their children are still only six and four.
But there are more immediate challenges than the school system for Juliette and Olivier. Olivier has begun an affaire with another woman, and most of the novel details how the couple deals with his adultery. And it is in the repeated confrontations and conversations between Juliette and Olivier that the novel becomes a little boring in its realism: at least in the repeated arguments between Juliette and her husband. Olivier’s concern for and inability to break with the apparently epileptic and increasingly highly unstable V, suggests he is weak, and I began to lose patience with both him and with Juliette. As the discussion within our group revealed, however, as the novel progresses, one begins to see how the past, particularly Juliette’s past has formed her and her attitudes towards men and towards herself.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this novel to me was how Juliette, Olivier, and their circle struck me as being so intensely recognisable; they could be my neighbours. Alard’s manipulation of focalization and free indirect discourse is also interesting as is her choice of names for her characters. If one wants, one can play with their significance. Also, this novel, too, presents the reader with a work where the accepted principles of punctuating discourse are eschewed. But these minutiae of style are not Alard’s main focus. In many ways, its focus places it firmly within the tradition of the social novel. Raising questions about the whole nature of contemporary sexual mores, particularly with relationship to the status of women, and underscoring that fact that outsiders can never fully understand the peculiar intimacies and loyalties of individual marriages, Couple Mechanics is intensely thought provoking and somewhat depressing.