Friday, March 08, 2013

Friday's Forgotten Books, March 8, 2013

by Deb
One of the alternate English titles for THE TRUTH ABOUT BEBE DONGE is I TAKE THIS WOMAN, which I find to be more accurate to the spirit of the story than its published title.  We never really learn the truth about Bebe—at least, not from her—nor do we penetrate the depths of her psyche, but we do learn a lot about her marriage and her husband’s gradual awareness of what he has done to damage it, in this Simenon novella first published in 1942 and anthologized in English in 1953.
Bebe Donge is the wife a wealthy merchant named Francois.  They have a young son and an idyllic life in the French countryside (although the book was published during World War II, no mention is made of any war-time activities or disruptions).  Bebe’s sister is married to Francois’s brother, who is also his business partner.  They, along with other family and friends, visit Francois and Bebe frequently, and Sunday afternoon get-togethers are a regular event.  During one of these family afternoons, marvelously evoked with a handful of descriptive sentences in Simenon’s trademark economic style, Francois becomes very ill after drinking a cup of coffee.  It is soon apparent that he has been poisoned and the culprit is quickly identified as Bebe.  While Francois is recovering from the poisoning, Bebe is arrested and sits in jail awaiting trial.  Members of the family are stunned that the quiet, self-possessed Bebe would try to kill her husband.  As they exchange memories of Bebe, a picture emerges—but is it accurate or merely perceptions filtered through each characters own vision of the alleged poisoner?
Part of the difficulty in this book lies in the disagreeable nature of Francois Donge who begins as a very unattractive character—a ruthless bully in both his business and family life.  He tends to see everyone around him as objects to be used as necessary for his professional or private ends.  He treats Bebe with disdain—a beautiful woman whose inner life or past traumas do not interest him.  Francois has been constantly unfaithful to Bebe, particularly in a casual on-going liaison with his secretary (a woman who ranks so low in Francois’s regard that he doesn’t even know her first name).  For some of us reading the story of the Donge marriage, the question is not why Bebe poisoned Francois but why it took so long before she did it!
But Francois does undergo a change during his recovery as he revisits the memories of his marriage with a new perspective.  He begins to see that Bebe, the product of a difficult marriage between mismatched parents (a favorite Simenon theme), wanted her marriage to Francois to be different, a true meeting of minds.  She married Francois perhaps unaware of his cold detachment or thinking that her love would be able to change him.  As years go by, Bebe sees Francois for what he is and begins to doubt that he will ever change.  Francois realizes that Bebe has developed a protective shell around her heart to avoid being hurt by the crumbling of her marriage.  But even that could not prevent her from reaching a point where any change—even that promised by going to prison for attempted murder—was preferable to continuing in her current situation. 
But all of this new-found awareness of Bebe comes from Francois and other characters.  They talk about her and analyze her and try to understand why she did what she did.  Meanwhile, Bebe sits quietly self-contained in her prison cell, never actually explaining what motivated her.  So we are left to determine for ourselves why a prosperous, upper-middle-class wife would, after a decade of marriage, become discontented enough to try to kill her husband.  It is up to us to pick through the differing perceptions of various characters to come to our own conclusions about the “truth.”  In a way, Bebe reminded me of Irene in THE FORSYTHE SAGA—a beautiful woman upon whom all the other characters in the book project their feelings but whose actual thoughts we never hear and can never really hope to know. 

Sergio Angelini, THE BLOODY MATCH, Paul Halter
Les Blatt , THE FINGERPRINT, Patricia Wentworth
Brian Busby,THE PAGANS, Jack Romaine, PAGAN, Jack Benedict
Bill Crider, THE GATHERING PLACE, Jon L, Breen
Martin Edwards, DEATH OF A BEAUTY QUEEN, E. R. Pushon
Curt Evans, TI'LL TELL YOU EVERYTHING, J.B. Priestly and Gerald Bullett
Jerry House, WILD WEST SHOW, Thomas W. Knowles and Joe Lansdale
Randy Johnson, RAW DAY AT PASCO SPRINGS, Clay More 
Nick Jones, THE BOY WHO FOLLOWED RIPLEY, Patricia Highsmith
George Kelley, STEPWATER: AN Arbiter Tale, L. Warren Douglad
Margot Kinberg. HOUSE REPORT, Deborah Nicholson
Rob Kitchin, WHITE DOG, Peter Temple
Evan Lewis, NO QUARTER, Nels (Leroy) Jorgenson
Steve Lewis/Walter Albert, THE GRAVE TATTOO, Val McDermid
Todd Mason, THE HARPER'S FORUM BOOK: WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? edited by Jack Hitt (Citadel 1991); THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS, Vol II, edited by Philip Gourevitch (Picador 2007)
J.F. Norris, MURDER AMONG FRIENDS, Lange Lewis
James Reasoner , CIRCUS PARADE, Jim Tully
Gerard Saylor, GOMORRAH, Roberto Saviano
Ron Scheer, WARLOCK, Oakley Hall
Michael Slind, MURDER ON THE BLACK MARKET, Brett Halliday
Kerrie Smith, SUITABLE VENGEANCE, Elizabeth George
Kevin Tipple, CONSPIRACY OF SILENCE, Martha Powers
TomCat, Kay Cleaver Strahan


Joe Barone said...

I thought Simenon was a great writer. Over the years, his books got shorter and shorter, and I didn't mind at all.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Love Simenon though not always the way he depicts women - have never read this one but sounds well worth picking - great review, thanks.

Gerard Saylor said...

I did find something I could contribute. Robert Saviano's Gamorrah.

Nick Jones (Louis XIV, the Sun King) said...

Can I submit my Ripley post, Patti? I'll link back of course.

Todd Mason said...

As usual, the longest most annoying titles I can come up with, and late, too:
THE HARPER'S FORUM BOOK: WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT? edited by Jack Hitt (Citadel 1991); THE PARIS REVIEW INTERVIEWS, Vol II, edited by Philip Gourevitch (Picador 2007)


Ron Scheer said...

Is is true that Simenon would lock himself in a room for a week and turn out one of his novels, not knowing from the start who the killer was going to turn out to be?

jurinummelin said...

I just posted mine, it's only a short one.

Anonymous said...

Patti - That's awfully kind of you to include my post - thanks.