As we make it into summer, we’re reading another book about love: Philippe Besson’s Lie With Me. This novella is a brief but powerful look at a fleeting love affair between two high school boys in 1984, during a time when homosexuality was discriminated against in France (though the country’s record has improved since then). More than that, it’s a man looking back on his youth and pondering how his coming-of-age determined the course of his life.
We’ll start with an overview of the book and some discussion questions that we’ll come back to as the month progresses. But first, if you’re not already a member of our Babbel Book Club Facebook group, it’s never too late to join!
Lie With Me, published in French as Arrête avec tes mensonges in 2017, makes use of the double entendre of its title. It both alludes to the more risque scenes of the book, as well as the fact that the relationship at its center is founded on secrecy and deceit. The story is told by Philippe, who in his last year of high school begins a relationship with another boy, Thomas Andrieu. The bulk of the story takes place in 1984, but it flashes forward later on to 2007 and 2016.
Much of the drama centers on the two lovers keeping their affair a secret, but the book also explores the tensions of growing up in a small town. Thomas is resigned to never leaving his hometown so he can care for his family. This angers Philippe because he believes Thomas should be able to do whatever he wants, blind to his own privilege of having been born into a family that values education and upward mobility. Philippe does acknowledge his mistakes, but only with the benefit of hindsight, as the whole story is told by an older version of Philippe. Looking back on his teenage years, Philippe at times struggles to make sense of the lust and love he felt.
One thing that the reader is bound to consider is just how much of the book is fiction. While it’s not unusual for fiction to be based on a true story, it’s brought to another level by the fact that the book’s protagonist shares both a name and a biography with the author (they come from the same town and have written books of the same name, so it’s not exactly subtle). Philippe (the author) plays with the line between truth and fiction, but only reveals so much.
Philippe Besson originally planned to go into law, but began work on his first book, En l’absence des hommes (“In The Absence of Men”), in 1999. The book, about the lives of World War I soldiers, was met with critical success and won the Emmanuel-Robles Award. In the decades since, Besson has published a number of novels, many of which haven’t been translated into English. He’s also written for both stage and screen.
Lie With Me is likely Besson’s most successful work so far, garnering international attention and acclaim. He followed up this book with Un personnage de roman (“A Character From A Novel”), which tells the story of Emmanuel Macron’s run for president in France.
Molly Ringwald is an author, and Lie With Me is her first work of literary translation. She’s written for a number of publications, including the New York Times and Vogue. She wrote the memoir Getting the Pretty Back and the novel-in-stories When It Happens to You. And if the name sounds familiar, yes, she’s also the Molly Ringwald who starred in The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.
Including both native and non-native speakers, French is the fifth most-spoken language in the world. It’s a Romance language, meaning it’s a descendant of Vulgar Latin, and it’s spoken in places all over the world. Much of its global dominance is a legacy of France’s colonization of Africa and other parts of the world, and today, there are far more speakers of French outside of France than in it. Current French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to continue the spread of the language, though his current plans to promote French in Africa have been criticized for furthering a colonialist mission.
Though Lie With Me is the first French book we’ve chosen for the book club, French is actually the most common language to be translated into English. France and America’s literary histories are intertwined, as both Paris and New York have been important centers of written culture in the past 100 years. It’s no coincidence that the American expatriate authors of the early 20th century — Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein — chose Paris to settle down in.
- One of the first things we learn about the narrator is that he loves making up backstories for people he sees. What does this reveal about the character? Do you do anything similar when looking at strangers?
- Philippe (the character) worries about the narrow difference between lust and romance. What did you make of the central relationship?
- The first section of the book takes place when it was very unsafe to be gay, with both the social stigma and the coming years of the AIDS crisis. Did anything about the portrayal of homosexuality in the time period jump out to you?
- The main argument between Thomas and Philippe is that Thomas feels like he has to stay home to take care of his family’s farm, and Philippe feels like he has to leave to fulfill his father’s wishes that he become an academic. Are these characters trapped by their fate? Whose side did you take in the argument?
- Philippe often thinks about the divide between knowing things from books and knowing things from real life. Is one inherently better than the other?
- Based on the ending, is this book a tragedy?
- What did you think of the way the author played with truth and fiction? Does the book change if you know that it’s a memoir rather than a novel?
Stay tuned for the rest of the month to join discussions about the book and the French language. Want to learn more about Babbel Book Club? Click here.