Life, Only Better
“an effervescent book, comprised of two equally well-rounded stories . . .”
“if you really care about something in life, do whatever it takes not to lose it.”
The two novellas that make up Anna Gavalda’s latest offering, Life, Only Better, illustrate the importance of finding one’s bliss and hanging on to it no matter what.
The first novella revolves around Mathilde. A young dilettante, she works as a web reviewer, alternately breaking and making businesses for herself.
Yann, the protagonist of the second novella, is in some ways Mathilde’s polar opposite: he’s young as well, but he’s responsible, sober, in a committed relationship . . . and utterly at sea in his life. Trained as a design engineer, he admits that he hasn’t an innovative bone in his body. A chance meeting with his neighbors opens the world to Yann, offering him the opportunity to see lives lived with relish.
Gavalda’s work in this set of novellas is luminous. Though she herself is in her forties, she has a lovely way of remembering on paper the heartbreak of a person’s mid-twenties. Yann and Mathilde are not children, not do they act like kids; they are also not entirely adult. Their individual searches for where they fit into their worlds and what the make up of a satisfying adult life entails are absorbing and realistic.
Mathilde is deceptively shallow at the opening of her tale. Her purchases for the day are listed: “frilly handbags, accessories, beauty products, and countless pairs of impractical shoes . . .” She’s “exhausted and completely broke . . .” at mid afternoon, we’re told. The careful listing of frippery emphasizes how jejune Mathilde can be, but the story unfolds to reveal a very different Mathilde. “You keep on going like an empty sack; you might buy all kinds of crap to compensate for the hollowness, but you will always lose what matters the most.” In her case, those losses began with a parent, then the parent’s bag, then what might matter most of all.
Yann has lost more than a bag. He’s lost himself. The second novella is blessedly free of tropes common in literature about millennials: Yann is not a slacker or a hipster or a poser. He’s not couch surfing or unemployed. He’s not part of the Tindr hook-up crew. He is thoughtful and honest, and overwhelmingly kind. “It’s damn hard to be cruel when you’re nice,” he reflects at a crucial point in his story, and for once the reader will be rooting for a character to be selfish. Isaac, Yann’s inspirational neighbor (and a fascinating character himself) said it best: “Protect your nest . . . What you are. You have to protect it. Who will do it for you?”
Gavalda is a strong writer, comfortable in the spaces between heavenly reflection and earthy reality. Mathilde treasures a poetic letter from a former lover, and Gavalde shares that fulsome slice of elevated literature with the reader. She also writes with relish of sexual encounters in the basest terms. It’s a lovely juxtaposition of desire and reality, and is reflective of the stories as a whole.
Mathilde and Yann yearn for lives fuller than the ones they currently live, expecting to find them in socially acceptable places. Fortunately, for them and for us, both find that the reality of a rich life is achieved by tickling the outside boundaries of expectation.
Life, Only Better lives up to its name. The endings of both novellas will elicit a smile; this is good, positive literature that bucks the current trend toward the downbeat ending. “I’m honest enough to distinguish between the beautiful and the true, and to choose the beautiful when it’s obvious,” thinks Mathilde. The reader will heartily agree. Life, Only Better was a huge hit upon its European release, and if life is fair it will find equal treatment in this English language translation. This is an effervescent book, comprised of two equally well-rounded stories. Mathilde and Yann feel like old friends by the end of each story. Bravo.