Book Review on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
The Inseparables is about Simone de Beauvoir’s friendship (from the age of nine) with Élisabeth Lacoin, nicknamed Zaza. This was a hugely important friendship to her. which she frequently returns to in her writing.
Thinly guised as fiction, in The Inseparables, Sylvie (Simone) firstly meets Andree (Zaza) at a private Catholic school. Sylvie is immediately fasicnated by Andree, with her diminuative size, but irreverant and bold behavior. Andree announces that she had been ‘burned alive’ and her right thigh ‘grilled to the bone’ while cooking on a campfire. For the first time, Sylvie experienced what it was like to have a special interest in one of her classmates .She becomes a friend to whom she felt passionately towards for the rest of Andree’s life.
As the girls grow up we get a sense of the intense disappointment Sylvie feels when Andree’s love for her mother and commitment to family, comes between their special friendship. This distancing between them continues when Sylvie realizes that she no longer believes in God, whilst Andree feels that she couldn’t bear to be alive without a religion.
As Sylvie watched Andree, to an extent at least, conform to the expectations her family have of her, there is a sense of Sylvie wanting Andree to take a stronger stance than she does against them. Sylvie is disappointed when Andree confirms to societal rules; the reader is left feeling that Andree’s personality has been chastened and limited by external contraints that she cannot or will not fight against. Despite this, Andree is a strange mix of compliance and rebellion. She agrees to her mother’s breaking off of an engagement she disapproved of, yet injures her foot with an axe in order to avoid attending a social engagement she didn’t want to attend. It is hard to pin Andree down and it this elusiveness that Simone is fascinated by.
As children and young teenagers, Sylvie and Andree had talked intensly and frequently about social, political and educational issues. It is important to remember that this was at a time when women were not allowed to vote It was a time of political awakening, yet many women would not be encouraged into intellectual pursuits or judged on their minds.
Sylvie constantly wants to return to the sharing of the depth of feeling and openness of communication the friends once shared. She perhaps resents the intrusion of societal expectatons in Andree’s life. She seems to constantly long for emotional intimacy with Andree.
The second part of the story moves quite quickly. Critics have said that it is rushed and the structure of the novella is imbalanced. I tend to agree. Nevertheless, the exploration of the friendship continues to be shown and invite a strong emotional response from the reader. Sylvie’s involvement in encouraging Andree’s love affair with Pascal, shows her deep desire for Andree to be happy.
The re-telling of what happened to Andree at the end of the book is rushed and needs more explanation and developement. It is perhaps indicative of the depth of feeling that Sylvie had toward Andree, and her confusion about Andree’s own increasing sense of self-disregard, that she writes so briefly about what ultimately happens to Andree.
Book Club Questions on Simone de Beauvoir's The Inseparables
- Discuss Andree’s reaction to her mother’s disapproval of her first boyfriend. What does this reveal about Andree’s relatiionship with her mother?
- What initally attracted Andree and Sylvie to one another? What ultimately stood in the way of their friendship?
- How might the relationship between Sylvie and Andree have been different if they lived in contemporary society?
- Sum up how you think the parents of Sylvie and Andree would have viewed one another.
- Who would you rather be friends with Sylvie or Andree? Discuss the reasons for your choice.
- As the story is narrated by Sylvie the narration is inevitably unreliable and one-sided. What event/s in the narration do you think Sylvie might have a distorted or innaccurate view of?
- When Sylvie and Andree were first at university, under the influence of alcohol, various misconceptions about how they felt toward one another were unearthed. Sylvie declares her depth of feeling toward Andree. In return, Andree states that she felt that Sylvie only ever felt passionately about her books and education. Who do you think suffered most from this exchange and why?
- Discuss Pascal’s character. Consider the way he presents his relationship with his father and his reticence about marrying Andree. What does his tell you about him?
- Discuss whether Monsieur Blondel was as you expected him to be. Do you think he would have approved of the relationship between Pascal and Andree?
- Discuss why Catholicism is central to what happens in The Inseparables.
Best Book Club Questions on The Inseparables (if you haven't read the book!)
- Discuss why friendships formed in childhood can be so powerful?
- In the novella, Sylvie stands aside to allow the relationship between Andree and Sylvie to blossom. Are there any circumstances when you would give up a boyfriend for a friend?
- Look at the picture on the book jacket of The Inseparables. Discuss what this illustration says to you?
- The Inseparables is thinly disguised autobigoraphy. Discuss why fiction is a useful medium for exploring personal relationships.
- The blurb on the back of The Inseparables says “The compulsive story of two friends growing up and falling apart.” Discuss how important friendships are to you.
- Far more books explore sexual relationships between couples than patonic friendships. Can you think of any other books which address the issue of friendship? How interesting a theme is friendship to read about? How important is friendship to you?
It’s about thirty-fve years since I first read Simone de Beauvoir’s works, but of course The Inseparables wasn’t published until 2016. The well-written and interesting introduction by Deborah Levy to The Inseparables gave plenty of context to the thinly disguised autobigraphical account, as did this fascinating article Levy wrote about it for the Guardian. The Inseparables resonated with me as it shows the power and intensity that childhood and adolescent friendships can have. In this relationship Sylvie’s awareness of the dislike Andree’s mother had for her struck me as worth commenting on. Relationships with friend’s parents, which at the time, are often only half noticed and observed intrigue me. It fascinates me how children, well in fact, all of us can feel that which we are not able to articulate, We immediately sense if we are ‘liked or not’.
The amazing thing about Simone de Beuvoir’s writing is its depth and accessibility. Having rediscovered her writing after all this time, I will definitely be venturing further back into her works. I remember a book called She Came to Stay which, at the time, struck me as incredibly perceptive and insightful. I wonder what I will think when I read it again.