#AW80Books – Slim, quirky and intoxicating – Amelie Nothomb’s ‘Petronille’

Pétronille by Amélie Nothomb (2014, translation by Alison Anderson) was this month’s reading  choice for my book group. While her parents are Belgian, Nothomb was born in Japan but currently lives in Paris. Both novel and author were new to me, but by happy chance, it makes it not only another stop-off on our Around the World in 80 Books reading challenge but also the perfect choice for Women In Translation Month hosted by Meytal at Biblibio.

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The slim volume describes the blossoming friendship between Amélie, an author in her thirties and a young fledgling writer, Pétronille, who as well as sharing a common interest in writing, bond over their shared passion for champagne. The story is narrated by Amélie who is intrigued, charmed and perplexed in turns by her unpredictable drinking companion. The prose sparkles like the fine champagne that is consumed in copious quantities, and each page had me gasping either with laughter or in awe at the piercing observation and dry wit.

Some of the phrasing just floored me with it’s simple but dazzling brilliance. On the way to London to interview Vivienne Westwood for a magazine, Amélie describes her first impressions of the English countryside.

Before we crossed the Channel, the empty fields had been dreary too, but now, I felt the nature of their dreariness was different. This was English sadness.

The encounter with Vivienne Westwood that follows is so funny, but I can’t quote from it for fear of revealing spoilers. All I can do is implore you to get hold of a copy and read it yourself. It is hilarious. Nothomb doesn’t hold back with her biting evocation of the English viewed from across the channel, and she captures so vividly that feeling of alienation in a foreign city when things aren’t going your way.

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As Pétronille begins to see success as a novelist in her own right, her relationship with Amélie becomes fragmented. Her increasingly erratic and self-destructive behaviour causes Amélie concern and the novel ends with a shocking twist that left me reeling.

Pétronille may be the first novel I’ve read by Amélie Nothomb, but it won’t be the last. It was blisteringly good, and I can’t wait to read more.

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