cover image Do What They Say or Else

Do What They Say or Else

Annie Ernaux, trans. from the French by Christopher Beach and Carrie Noland. Univ. of Nebraska, $17.95 trade paper (134p) ISBN 978-1-4962-2800-0

In this unsettling novel from Ernaux (The Years), first published in France in 1977, a teenage girl has her first sexual experience on summer break. Anne, introverted and contemplative at 15, harbors a cool contempt for her working-class parents, especially her mother (“It had been a long time since she had said anything interesting to me”), and imagines living like the misanthropic protagonist of Camus’s The Stranger. She vacillates between the intensities of her boredom (“I wanted something to happen, that was all, and nothing was happening”) and curiosity about her secret-sharing girlfriends, a lecherous neighbor, and sex, which she believes will fundamentally alter her being and place in the world. It doesn’t, as all she learns from losing her virginity to the older, politically engaged Mathieu is “the brutality of boys, their lack of tenderness.” Nonetheless, Anne eludes the watchful gaze of her parents to pursue more sexual encounters, each a disillusionment that further increases her puzzlement. All the while, Ernaux renders a clear-eyed and pitiless depiction of Anne’s dissatisfaction. It adds up to a powerful portrait of a searching adolescent. (Oct.)