I found the first three pages of The First Thing You See hard going, consisting as they do of a young man’s detailed descriptions of the different shapes of women’s breasts. As a straight woman I found them rather tedious and a touch creepy (the descriptions not the breasts) while at the same time a small voice in the back of my head was whispering, “Well, of course the author is French.” Our stylish neighbours across the Channel, with their contempt for the politically correct and their love of grand gestures, are also famed for their cool acceptance of the power of romantic and sexual passion, something which British writers (the male ones anyway) seldom manage without getting their knickers in a twist.
This is a story of first love, so to some extent you’re prepared for the inevitable broken hearts, but despite this The First Thing You See is not a predictable novel. It’s fresh, funny, fast-moving and inventive – including as it does little-known facts about Hollywood stars alive and dead, stories of parental betrayal and snapshots of everyday life in a small French town. The book was originally written in French and, despite an excellent translation by Anthea Bell, it still feels as French as bread with chocolate.
This is a book coloured by its location. It couldn’t have been set in the countryside of Kent, Essex or Northumberland, although these counties also boast isolated cottages and small villages populated by people who take a strong interest both in Hollywood movies and their neighbours’ lives. It’s also likely that English rural areas are home to just as many vulnerable young people looking for love as are in the quiet villages of north-east France but somehow in this novel the people who populate them are just so French….
It’s hard to put your finger on what the difference is. Perhaps it’s that the French are not embarrassed about recognizing the power of beauty to create emotion in ordinary people, whether they find it in a movie, in a poem or in a lovely face. Somehow we class-conscious British take for granted that the educated middle classes or the Oxbridge elite are more likely to be sensitive to beauty than garage mechanics or shop assistants, so it’s liberating to be reminded that not everyone shares our views. It’s possible for the grand gesture, the transformative event, to emerge from the routines of everyday lives.
Writers have to be confident if they are to deal with the major issues of life and (yes it’s a cultural cliché but still ….) the French are not known as being a country of shrinking violets. This is a book written by an author who has the courage to ask some big questions – like who or what shapes our destinies – and he delivers his answers with panache.