More is Less

This is my review of Ensemble c’est tout (Litterature Generale) by Anna Gavalda.

A best seller in France and adapted as a film starring the gamine Audrey Tautou and titled in English "Hunting and Gathering", this is the tale of three very talented young people who, having been damaged by their dysfunctional, neglectful or thoughtlessly cruel parents, form an unlikely friendship through which they help each other to achieve fulfilment and happiness.

Camille is a gifted artist, reduced to anoxeria and working as an office cleaner at night. Franck is a boorish and promiscuous chef, whose loud mouth conceals a soft heart and a sense of guilt over abandoning his beloved grandmother Paulette to a soulless old people's home. The aristocratic, for me stereotyped, Philibert, is a walking history book, a stammering figure of fun with obsessive compulsive disorder, who wastes his skills selling postcards.

My judgement may have been jaded by the effort required to read this in the original French. It is certainly a good source of modern slang, colloquial speech, idioms and cultural references, although deciphering some of these was a hard and often fruitless labour. I needed a French speaker on hand to ease the path more than for any other French novel I have ever read.

However, I feel confident in saying that this potentially interesting plot was ruined for me by self-indulgently excessive length and lack of editing of too many banal conversations and incidents, by a mawkish tone and a very loose, clunky structure. Minor scenes are presented in great deal, major incidents glossed over or implied.

The narrative veers between passages of dense prose, such as Part 3 (rationale for these parts eluded me) Chapter 17 in which Camille explains the trauma of her childhood in a lengthy passage of "telling" rather than "showing" and some other chapters which are just a page long – a few slangy phrases in a sea of white space.

The tone is mostly mildly crude or schmaltzy with the occasional flight into pretentiousness. The characters often seem underdeveloped to me. There was missed scope for drama in, for instance, the behaviour of Camille's mother, Philibert's finding of a girlfriend or the role of the drug addict Vincent.

There are a few moving passages, such as Pauline's experience of ageing. Also, some moments of humour, as when Camille makes a coat for the concierge's dog out of Franck's shrunken designer jumper. But a good deal of tedium has to be navigated to dredge up these pearls.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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