Besson, Philippe. “Lie With Me”, (translated by Molly Ringwald), Scribner’s, 2019.
An Affair Between Two Boys
Philippe Besson’s bestselling French novel has been called the French “Brokeback Mountain” and is about an affair between two teenage boys in 1984 France. It has beautifully and lyrically translated by actress/writer Molly Ringwald.
Right outside of a hotel in Bordeaux Philippe comes upon
a young man who strongly resembles his first love. It was a relationship that he’s never forgotten, a hidden affair with a handsome boy named Thomas during their last year of high school. Without ever acknowledging they know each other in the halls or when not together, they manage to meet in secret as they make passionate love and are part of an affair that is world-altering. This is a highly erotic coming-of-age story that is tender, moving and very emotional.
Set in 1984 Bordeaux, the teens fall in love in the shadows, “leaving one of them to reflect on the relationship many years later.” As they found each other, they also found that life can destroy as well as be lived. Reading this is like dreaming as balance and despair knock up against each other. Philippe Besson not only gives us the boys’ story but also their world as they deal with longing, love, and letting go.” I am stunned by the beauty of the prose especially since it is in translation and I sensed from the very beginning that this is not a book that leaves you after you close the covers.
As we read, we cannot help but realize the damage that hatred can do. While there was no hate crime or bullying both of the young men here were victims of a persistent kind of intolerance that relegated them and their love to a clandestine relationship. They should’ve been allowed the freedom to love and be loved without the need for courage or bravery to do so. This is story of how bigotry affected that freedom and fear of reprisal stole their innocence.
The story comes to us in three parts, making it difficult to avoid the inclusion of later events and making the specifics of dialogue a bit hazy and giving the reader a non-linear retelling but one that is emotive nonetheless. The first part takes place in 1984 when they are seniors in high school and this is most of the story. The second part takes place in 2007 when during an interview Philippe sees a boy outside a hotel that’s the spitting image of Thomas, a boy who turns out to be his son. The events of 2016 conclude the story.
Philippe is inquisitive, precocious and stunned when Thomas approaches him the first time. Thomas is popular but quiet and seems to be resigned to a life he knows won’t ever bring him happiness. At 17 he’s already used secrecy and deception as his norm and at 18 those very same habits will forever taint them both. During their time together they are able to steal a few moments of bliss and writer Philippe Besson captures the intensity of his feelings for Thomas as well as the optimism and folly of youth. I truly felt not only his physical desire for him but his steadfast belief that they would find a way to carve out a future together, despite evidence to the contrary. We see that prejudice robbed these two boys of a life together, a life they deserved and left in its place a life lived inauthentically for one and the other who struggles to give his heart to another after having it broken by his first love. The story is timeless as is the pain that accompanies it.
Besson wonderfully captures all of the fear and freedom of young desire. His prose gets right to the heart of what it means to have to fall in love in secret. Prepare yourself for tears and a wonderful reading experience.