Commentary: Ensemble C’est Tout

Posted 10 November, 2013 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Hunting and Gathering (Ensemble C’est Tout)
By: Anna Gavalda
Format/Source: Trade paperback; my purchase

Gavalda explores the twists of fate that connect four people in Paris. Comprised of a starving artist, her shy, aristocratic neighbor, his obnoxious but talented roommate, and a neglected grandmother, this curious, damaged quartet may be hopeless apart, but together, they may just be able to face the world.

I read this novel for the first time a few years ago (you can read my review over here) after having watched the movie with Audrey Tautou and Guillaume Canet. It was a delightful movie and I was curious about the novel . It quickly became an all-time favourite of mine (in fact, I own two copies of this novel: the English edition under the title Hunting and Gathering, and the French edition whose cover is featured here). For the past year or two I had been meaning to re-visit the book again, maybe write down a few of my favourite quotes to put into my quotes journal, but I never found the time until I decided to participate in the Books in France reading challenge this year. And here we are 🙂

This book is part of the Books on France Reading Challenge 2013 that I am participating in.

Contains spoilers ahead!

Ensemble C’est Tout is just as delightful to read the second time around despite of the serious issues and inner struggles that eachof the character have to deal with; half the time I just want to hug them all and tell them that everything will be all right–even Franck, hwoever grumpy he’d be about the gesture. It’s interesting how all of these characters come from different parts of French society–from aristocratic to working class–and yet they are all facing issues of self-esteem and self-concept, loneliness and lack of understanding and connection with the world around them.

Philou (I’m using his nickname here) is from the aristocratic class and heir to his family’s title who works in a shop selling postcards on the street near major tourist spots around the city. He suffers from a stammer and low self-esteem due to his family–especially his cold father who thinks Philou’s a soft fool–who doesn’t quite understand Philou’s interests and his generally sweet personality. He’s very much a product of his upbringing of course, from his manners to his very formal way of speaking, but he’s also very kind and loves to hang out with his younger sister. His story strangely tapers off a bit by parts four and five when Paulette joins their ranks but I enjoyed his story. In a way he’s the catalyst of the group, the one who set everything in motion, bringing them together one by one.

Camille was the most mysterious of the quartet; her friends and the reader don’t actually learn much about her backstory until much later in the novel. Her situation is strange becasue she has this inherent kindness in her and quite a gift in drawing and art but she had such a crappy childhood that a lot of her current problems–low self-concept, serious eating problems, social isolation–stems from it. From the four characters, Camille takes the longest to actually face her problems because it had defined her experiences so deeply. Camille’s the closest in age to me so there are some perspectives that she holds that in a way I understood (must be the developmental stage *has her psychology/nursing hat on*).

Franck I think is the most colourful character of the group. I love all of the characters in their own way and I identify with Philou and Camille the most because, as they mentioned themselves, they’re the intellectuals. Franck on the other hand isn’t very school smart; he’s always in motion and sometimes he doesn’t even spell things right. But he’s also a brilliant and talented cook. He can also be a total prick sometimes (sorry, gentle readers, but this aptly describes him for much of the novel =P) and a loose cannon but after the reader learns about his back story, you can see why he became such a hothead. He’s a very prickly character and rather unpredictable at times–you never know if he’s in a good mood or not–but I rather enjoy his character, some of my favourite lines/the most amusing lines in the novel actually came from him because, despite of his seriousness, it cracked me up (that and I have a weird sense of humour). For example:

“What the hell did I get mixed up with such a bunch of lunatics! Any more melodrama and we’ll be drowning in soap bubbles! We’re not going to war, fuck! We’ll be gone forty-eight hours!”
– p. 272

(Err, just to put the quote in context: Franck and Camille are heading outside of Paris to visit Franck’s friends and Philou was concerned about their departure. Philou and Camille’s goodbye took an over-sentimental turn, lol)

It’s also surprising to learn how much of a softy Franck really is underneath his tough exterior, a romantic (but you’d never tell that to his face). He cares for people but he doesn’t quite realise it at times nor does he do a very good job at expressing himself. But he cares, you just have to give him time. This was especially apparent when it came to the development of Franck and Camille’s relationship; it’s a weird sort o inverted development stemming form their loneliness and their desire to just connect (to borrow E.M. Forster’s phrase). Franck is the one who makes the effort, takes the steps, in getting closer to Camille, you actually see him fall for her. With Camille, it’s a little more difficult to determine her feelings as she’s simultaneously going through a lot of other things as well and it just takes her longer to figure things out and sort herself out. But Franck makes the effort for her, which was sweet.

Paulette’s story was the most difficult to read for personal reasons, perhaps the reason why I never mentioned her storyline in my first review. It’s still a tough read to this day. But her story encapsulates the difficulty that elderly people face, the gradual breakdown of their physical capabilities although their mind is still sharp. There’s that difficulty to adapt and to let go of their former life, their sense of independence and person and their feelings of guilt, shame and despair of being a burden to other people.

It’s interesting and wonderful to watch and read as they come together to form this makeshift familial unit, learn to overcome their own personal issues and difficulties and connect with each other in friendship, love and understanding. It can be frustrating and difficult and heartbreaking to read sometimes as they hit roadblocks, lock horns and be stubborn about things but their interaction and support is also very sweet.

I appreciated the writing and the way in which the story was structured and presented. A lot of the time it’s just dialogue, back and forth between two characters without any narrative to break up the flow. I appreciated that, not only because I enjoy reading a good dialogue scene/conversation but it also keeps the momentum up, there’s nothing in the way between these two characters communicating. In my original review I mentioned that it was sometimes difficult to determine whose POV the reader was reading; in that sense you have to pay attention as it’s part of the story. In a way, this sort of fluidity between POVs reflects how similar the characters’ personal struggles truly were.

Overall, I was happy to re-read this novel and re-discover these characters, their lives and their friendship. I highly recommend this novel if you’re into French contemporary literature, fans of internal character drama or novels about lost characters finding a place to belong.

Rating: ★★★★★

Learn more about the author on Wikipedia || Order this book from the Book Depository

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