Pétronille, which was originally published in French in 2014, is the second book in a row that I’ve read that features a narrator who is a writer/shares a name with the author, which I hadn’t really thought about it when I picked it up but which was funny once I realized it. According to this PEN Atlas Q&A, the character of Pétronille herself is inspired by an actual person, and some events in the book are true to life: the Vivienne Westwood interview that the Q&A mentions was probably the highlight of the book for me.

But, OK, let me back up: Pétronille starts with the narrator waxing rhapsodic about being champagne-drunk, which “makes one gracious, disinterested, light as air yet profound at the same time”; champagne, she says “exalts love and confers elegance upon the loss of love” (10). But getting champagne-drunk would surely be more fun with a friend, so the narrator decides she needs a drinking companion, though she’s not sure anyone she knows will actually be up to the task: she takes her champagne-drinking seriously. Well: enter Pétronille, who heard the narrator speak on the radio and read her books, then started exchanging letters with her, and eventually comes to a book-signing to meet her. They talk, and Pétronille charms the narrator by getting an annoying photographer to leave the bookshop: she’s all bravery and action, and her boldness is clearly part of her appeal. They arrange to get drinks another day, which they do, though maybe the narrator feels differently about Pétronille’s boldness now: she pisses in the street and accuses the narrator (who’s from a wealthy family) of slumming. A few years later, though, the narrator sees that Pétronille has published a novel: she reads it, and it’s good, which prompts the narrator to write to her. Their friendship picks up again, and though it’s not always smooth, the lovely moments are really great: I love one bit where, after a champagne-tasting full of snobby society ladies looking down their noses at Pétronille (who’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket), the narrator tells Pétronille to take her to someplace she loves. Pétronille takes her to Shakespeare and Company and then to a Roman amphitheatre and we get this:

We gazed respectfully at the arena. A silence of catacombs reigned.
“I feel very Gallo-Roman,” declared Pétronille.
“Tonight, or in general?”
“You are so not normal,” she answered with a laugh.” (43)

The class difference between Pétronille and the narrator does cause tension, as do other things: the largeness of Pétronille’s personality, the way she loses her temper, the way she expects the narrator to be there for her even when she’s kind of a jerk, but the narrator clearly feels tender and protective towards Pétronille, though maybe she shouldn’t. At one point the narrator refers to “that strange sort of love which is so mysterious and so dangerous and where you never quite know what is at stake: friendship” (94). It feels like that’s what’s at the heart of this book, those mysteries and dangers, full of dark humor, lightened with flutes of champagne.

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