Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Anna Gavalda’s French Leave: Childhood’s very final (and very fun) hurrah

Some families are enviably idyllic. They traverse, like great big sail ships of old, through azure treachery of life’s turbulent waters, and no Pacific mega-storm or some ghastly kraken could break up the merriment on deck.

Gavalda gives us such a family in her 2011 novel French Leave. Four siblings, four nodes of a single pulsating system, each with their own prosaic cross to bear as they go forth adulting in life. And yet, in spite of the distance and the in-laws and the brutality of comfortable middle-class ignorance, these siblings, these saplings of a very cherishing earth, keep the gentle strings that maintain the delicate ecosystem of their connection in perfect balance.

They find their sanctuary, this joyful quartet, in a picturesque French countryside, with a chateau, wine, and music, an endless mixtape of carefully curated gems, each a token from not-so-distant past, the before-parents-divorced past, the before-the-gadgets past, complete with outdoor fun and scraped knees and crazy fun games. This is a lovely eulogy to Childhood, a sacrosanct interval on life’s measuring tape, and no amount of fussy sisters-in-law can commandeer it.

We don’t always burst with love for our siblings, but if we do it probably should be done like Gavalda’s four witty thirtysomethings. How do adults retain that level of effortless panache? That perfectly executed series of witty repartee? That intuitive, worldless understanding of the other heart’s rhythm? Is this even normal? Is this even real? Maybe distance, geographic and temporal, jump-starts the soul to its optimal performance level? How’s this, from the mouth of the youngest sibling (and our narrator):

“A huge wave of tenderness washed over me looking at the three of them: somehow this felt like the last magic show, the last birthday party of our childhood…

For almost thirty years they’d been making my life a place of beauty. What would I become without them? When would life decide it was time for us to part?

For that’s the way it goes. For time parts those who love one another, and nothing lasts.”

A gentle, silver-webbed kind of melancholy pierces this moment of universal experience. Who are we without our dear ones, those chance witnesses of our brief pilgrimage through life with all those monotone photocopier struggles and grocery store runs and weddings and divorces and the occasional sneaky cigarette. They liberate us, our dear ones, just as Adulthood pins us, like butterflies, to its collection board.

“For how much longer will we have the strength to tear ourselves away from everyday life and resist? How often will life give us the chance to play hooky? When will we lose one another, and in what way will the ties be stretched beyond repair? How much longer until we become too old?”

In the world of this novel, the happy recess from Adulthood comes to an end, waving goodbye to old castles and cassette tapes. This is all too neat, too careful, like a polite curtsy at the end of some country dance. For what would happen if this amusing recess were to turn into a whole lot of skipped classes for the rest of the afternoon..? Pearls never lie on the seashore.

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