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The Way She Reads

My thoughts on everything I read; good, bad and indifferent.
Monsieur - Emma Becker When twenty year old Ellie finds out that a colleague of her uncle has an interest in and a collection of erotic literature the thought excites her and awakens her curiosity. It isn’t long before she has found this man on Facebook. When, soon after, she sends him a message, indicating both her own interest in erotica and subtle hints at where those might lead she sets in to motion a chain of events that will take her on an emotional roller-coaster and will, eventually, leave her devastated. Initially the two illicit lovers meet regularly, on Tuesdays, in a cheap hotel in Paris where their encounters and especially Monsieur’s needs and demands are of such intensity that they both intrigue and revolt the young woman. This state of affairs doesn’t last long though. After only a few weeks their encounters become less regular and contact between them fragmented and ever more one-sided. Torn between need and despair Ellie doesn’t know what she wants or needs anymore. Other lovers can’t distract her from the need she feels for Monsieur and neither can her girlfriends. She will have to make up her mind if an affair, conducted according to his schedule only, is something she can live with or whether her, ever more fragile, hold on her sanity requires her to make a clean break.

This was a book unlike anything I’ve read before and I’m not quite sure what I think of it. Exceptionally well written this story is both shocking and thought provoking. The reader finds themselves alternating between very graphic and often crude descriptions of sexual intercourse and philosophical thoughts about love, life, erotica and relationships. And because the story is told by a girl in her early twenties we are spectators as she slowly grows up, learns things about herself she might not want to know and discovers her boundaries.

As for Ellie, there were several occasions on which I felt like slapping some sense into her. I wanted her to make up her mind about what she wanted and needed. Either she enjoyed the way he was treating her – in which case continuing made sense – or she didn’t – which should have her walking away from this unpredictable and utterly selfish man. It was hard not to feel that the young woman was as addicted to this man as she was to the bad way in which he was treating her. The way she describes her despair had me thinking that those feelings were as important to her as her physical need for him was.

One issue I had early on in this book is that it wasn’t always clear who was saying what. The perspective could shift from one paragraph to the next and there were occasions when I would have finished reading a paragraph before realising that, apparently, the perspective had changed. I think this might be a language issue though. It’s been years since I last studied French in school but I do remember enough to know that if I were (able) to read this book in the original language the use of gender based words and word-endings would have made these shifts more instantly recognisable. I also find myself wondering if I made allowances for this story and the language used because it is, originally, a French story; as if the French are entitled to behave, think and talk in ways that I wouldn’t find acceptable coming from any other nationality. Even now that I’ve finished the book, I can’t answer that particular question.

This book is very sexually explicit and doesn’t mince its words. In fact at times the language in this book is crude. The author doesn’t shy away from using vulgar words, doesn’t try to make the sexual acts the characters indulge in look or sound polite. These two characters abandon themselves in each other and in the animal attraction between them; the words they use reflect their very basic needs. Any shame Ellie feels is there for the reader to share, and the words used make it easier for the reader to do just that.

Fascinating and disturbing, beautifully written and at times almost philosophical, vulgar and shocking; there are so many aspects to this book and it raised so many, conflicting, reactions in me that I’m at a loss to come up with a short description of my feelings about this work. What I will say is that this is not a book for those who find themselves easily shocked or offended. And it is also not a book for those who want a quick and easy erotic tale. This book provides the reader with both a shocking story and lots of food for thought. This is a story that, for a variety of reasons, will linger with the reader.

According to an interview with the author this is a semi-autobiographical story which makes me wonder if the man she calls Monsieur in this book has read it, how he feels about it and if they have had contact (in any way, shape or form) since the book was published. At the same time I’m not sure whether to admire the way in which the author described herself or be shocked by her apparent lack of shame. What I will say though is that if an award was given for brutal honesty in a novel, this book would be in with a good chance of winning.