31 January 2012

Blandine Le Callet: Une pièce montée ('A Wedding Cake') (2006)

The translation of the title Une pièce montée is 'A Wedding Cake', although it could also refer to a play being put on, and indeed Vincent's fiancée Bérangère had originally wanted their wedding to be just that: 'une pièce de théâtre', an 'unforgettable performance', which is so very appropriate a description of the main players in this novel. Bérangère wants to keep to the three unities, but although as far as the book is concerned the main action takes place in a day, there are many digressions and a number of sub-plots that take us to a number of places at various times. And from the moment the director Bérangère has revealed her intentions, Vincent begins to feel that he is co-starring in a performance to which he hasn't even been invited.

The cover of the Poche edition is also very appropriate, with its photo of the top of a tiered wedding cake showing a very stiff and artificial-looking bride and groom tilted at an angle that almost indicates that they are falling over. The bourgeoisie are mercilessly attacked here for their callousness, their artificiality, and the fact that their bien-pensant veneer conceals astonishing hypocrisies.

At the end of the novel, near the end of the wedding reception, Bérangère learns something from her dying grandmother Madeleine that no one else knows: that her grandfather was not her biological grandfather, and that her grandparents' marriage was a loveless pretence to conceal the fact that Bérangère's mother was conceived out of wedlock. Suddenly Bérangère's certainties disappear and she seeks reassurance that her marriage will last. And Bérangère is concerned with things lasting, concerned that she should have the best material goods in her marriage, ones that will be passed on to her unborn children as heirlooms. Material goods are vital to her, going hand in hand with appearances that sometimes hide an unpleasant reality.

Une pièce montée is in nine sections, each narrated in the third person and corresponding to a character attending the wedding or wedding reception. From the beginning, we learn the importance of appearances from the eight-year-old Pauline, who has witnessed Lucie being removed from view of the camera by Bérangère and her sister Laurence; a little later we learn from the (disturbed but definitely not crazy) priest Bertrand that Lucie has Down's syndrome; near the end of the book (in a pre-wedding sequence) we learn that Lucie is Vincent's niece, and that Bérangère is horrified that she is to be a bridesmaid, even horrified by Lucie's existence in the family – which is a source of some friction between the engaged couple.

The wedding uncovers the jealousies, arguments, anger, neuroses, but most of all intolerance (especially of difference) lurking beneath the apparently smooth, well-heeled surface of these people, and the message seems to be that convention is deadly. Rebellion, on the other hand, is a very healthy thing, and (along with Bertrand's rebellion by speeding through a wedding ceremony in which no one is interested) is manifested by Pauline's refusal to smile in the photos Lucie is excluded from, and by Marie and Agnès's coming out ceremony, when they walk onto the dance floor for a slow, and passionately kiss.

Many actions and many people are crammed into this 250-page book, and although it's not always easy to work out the relationships, it's well worth the effort.

(But from what I've seen and heard of the film version La Pièce montée (note the change of article), it seems to take far too many liberties with the original material. I'll probably give it a miss.)


Richard Hill Brown said...

This was a beautifully crafted story. I was given it last year by a French friend, although my French is far from fluent. However, I am interested in Family Trees. It seemed to my reckoning that Madeleine is related to BOTH sides. My sister, who teaches French, did not spot this, so perhaps I am at fault. I wondered if the author was having some extra fun at our expense, with these dense relationships?

Dr Tony Shaw said...

As someone who very often gets into knots working out family trees, this no doubt passed me by very easily. Thank you for this comment.