I give away the ending. Read this anyway.
This novel feels contemporary and Tolstoyesque all at once. The characters are sketched rather than painted in oil, and the humor is gorgeous and easily missed if you read too quickly. For instance:
"Sitting comfortably, without her corset, her arms and legs bare and relaxed, out in the fresh air, in the sunshine, she felt extremely peaceful; she felt happy, as if she had everything she could wish for. She had a husband she loved, the best son in the world. The paper factory was flourishing. Her mother-in-law was dead. Pierre was making an excellent marriage."
How gorgeous to slip in that next-to-last item like that.
The same bluntness permeates the book. "She had reached the age where you recoil at the idea of any kind of change, as if it were an omen of the greatest change of all: death."
I should have loved this book. I barely got through it. Why?
What made this book difficult for me to read is that it's exactly what its cover claims: "a novel of love between the wars." Nemirovsky writes as if she were simply an exceptionally observant, sharp-witted French woman sketching out the lives of a couple who are required to witness two wars. The novel ends as World War II begins. Germany has just begun to occupy France. And yet the book ends on a beatific note: "She had gathered in all the good things of this world, and all the bitterness, all the sweetness of the earth had borne fruit. They would live out the rest of their days together."
Fair enough. But Nemirovsky was killed in the war she never mentions in her novel, the other war being waged by the Germans: the war against the Jews. She finished this book in 1940; in 1942, she was murdered in Auschwitz. She saw herself as a French writer. France and Germany saw her as a Jew. She and her husband, far from living out their days together, died separately in the Holocaust. Their two very young daughters narrowly escaped that fate.
Given how eagerly France worked with the Nazis to murder their own citizens, it is sickening to me to read a "French" novel by one of their victims. It's not Nemirovsky's words, but their context, that make this novel strangely horrifying.