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list of my desiresThe List of My Desires by Grégoire Delacourt
Other title: My Wish List
Translated by Anthea Bell

Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2013 (2012)
Hardback
201 pages
Fiction
french flag


Jocelyne Guerbette is a plump, middle-aged woman of forty-seven living in Arras, France. She runs a haberdashery shop and a blog, tengoldfingers, that gets over a thousand hits a day. Jo doesn’t consider herself to be successful, or interesting, or beautiful. She fears her ordinariness, and her middle class life – she fears her own happiness, contentment, with her life. Or rather, she fears her husband of twenty-one years, Jocelyn, will leave her for a younger, prettier woman. He has a well-worn list of wants, does Jo. A Porsche (red), the complete set of James Bond movies, a big flat-screen TV. An expensive watch and a fireplace for the lounge room. He works at the Häagan-Dazs factory and doesn’t earn enough for any of those things.

When Jo succumbs to her friends’ pushing to buy a lottery ticket one day, it’s nearly a week before she realises that she’s won over eighteen million euros. It’s a lot of money. Too much, perhaps. The possibilities are suddenly overwhelming. Jo doesn’t tell anyone about her win: not her husband, Jo, not her friends, the twins Danièle and Françoise, nor her two adult children, Romain and Nadine. She hides the cheque beneath the inner sole of a shoe in her wardrobe while she writes lists, a list of needs, a list of wants, a list of fantastic desires. She’s happy with her life, with Jo who’s been so attentive and loving – so different from all those years ago when she lost the third baby and he took out his misery and rage on her.

But just as she’s realising that money won’t bring additional happiness or make things better – that her life really is just the way she likes it, already – an unexpected, shocking betrayal changes everything.

The List of My Desires – or My Wish List as it’s called in North America – is both quietly, gently wonderful and also hugely disappointing. Jo – the wife – narrates most of the short novel and Delacourt’s style suits her perfectly. Her sense of insecurity, contentment, a hint of timidity curled around a resolute, brave will – it all comes across clearly, in the simple descriptive style and syntax as much as through Jo’s story. It’s also a distinctly – or what I think of as distinctly – French style, and this can work for me or it can’t.

Written in first person present tense without dialogue punctuation, one of the glitches of the novel is the fore-shadowing – either implicitly or through a sense of ominous presentiment. I really, really don’t like present tense anymore – it’s so hideously overused now, and incorrectly used – and I especially don’t like it when the story is essentially written in past tense; makes the verbs all look like typos. I don’t think it did the story any service to use present tense, though I will say that the foreshadowing (which I’m also not a fan of) gave the story tension and lent it an air of foreboding – which you can technically have when writing in present tense, if you’re skilled and careful and keep your narrator’s feet firmly planted in the present. That wasn’t the case here. (Foreshadowing can often spoil a story, like with The Age of Miracles, no matter what tense you use.) In fact, in classic French style, it was hard to know the when, while reading. The tense was a bit all over the place, as was the narration. I enjoy experimentation, but not every experiment works.

It gets messier when the plot changes gears and Jo’s life likewise changes. This is where I felt the novel got lost. It broke into two strands – Jo the wife and Jo the husband – and while Jo the husband’s story remained strong, albeit a bit obvious, Jo the wife’s story lacked cohesion, contradicted itself and, I felt, lost the plot – or the point – of the story. A few weird references made me think, rather bizarrely, of the Jason Bourne movies, and wonder what the F was even going on.

All that after such a strong start. The premise is simple and, while not original, appeals to us. It’s an age-old question, Can money buy you happiness? The psychological process Jocelyne goes through after winning the money is realistic, genuine, and so very human. Winning the lottery throws her life into perspective – or a new perspective, anyway. She rationally, calmly considers the dreams she’d had for her life as a girl, before her mother died suddenly when she was seventeen, before her father slipped into dementia after a stroke a year later. Before she married Jo.

I think of myself, of all that will now be possible for me, and I don’t want any of it. I don’t want what all the money in the world can buy. But does everyone feel like that? [p.61]

One of the insights I loved was Jo’s reflection on just how important it is to us to have those little things we need to get, how it propels us forwards, and how, if you were to win the lottery and simply buy everything on your list in one fell swoop, your sense of purpose and routine would vanish.

At home, I reread the list of what I need, and it strikes me that wealth means being able to buy everything on it all at once, from the potato peeler to the flat-screen TV, by way of the coat from Caroll’s and the non-slip mat for the bath. Go home with everything on the list, destroy the list and tell myself: Right, there we are, there’s nothing else I need. All I have left from now on are wishes. Only wishes.

But that never happens.

Because our needs are our little daily dreams. The little things to be done that project us into tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the future; trivial things that we plan to buy next week, allowing us to think that next week we’ll still be alive.

It’s the need for a non-slip bath mat that keeps us going. Or for a couscous steamer. A potato peeler. So we stagger our purchases. We programme the places where we’ll go for them. Sometimes we draw comparisons. A Calor iron versus a Rowenta iron. We fill our cupboards slowly, our drawers one by one. You can spend your life filling a house, and when it’s full you break things so that you can replace them and have something to do the next day. You can even go so far as to break up a relationship in order to project yourself into another story, another future, another house.

Another life to fill. [pp.132-3]

It was moments of insightful reflection and philosophical thought on the discourse of human happiness and life in general that I really appreciated in this book, and Jo’s movements through her life. I did find her naïve, and I couldn’t help but think that, in some way, what happened could have been avoided. The issue was her relationship with her husband. She loves him, she tells us. She’s forgiven him, I guess, for how badly he treated her after the death of their baby. She seems to buy into a lot of stereotypes – that he must surely want a younger, prettier, slimmer (firmer) woman, that he would so easily leave her or put the acquisition of material possessions before her. I find it hard to believe that she loved him, that she had a deep and meaningful relationship with him. I can’t imagine living with someone for so long and not trusting them enough to tell them I’ve won the lottery. I wouldn’t want to be with someone who I couldn’t talk to about important things, couldn’t share things with. So I did find it hard to relate to Jo, and I found it disappointing that her husband fulfilled her lowest expectations (to be honest, it’s all a bit predictable, too). And I found it a bit confusing what happened next.

This is a coming-of-age novel for Jocelyne, but it’s her husband’s story too. In a way, she never gave him a chance. She set him up to fail. And after creating such an unequal relationship, she didn’t give him the opportunity to make mistakes, learn from them, grow and grow up. She feared what would happen if she told him about the winnings – how it would change things, ruin them – and that I can understand. But her fear was a selfish one, and she made selfish decisions for Jo as well. She decided that the life she liked should be good enough for him, as well. What came across clearly was Jo-the-husband as Jo-the-child, and nowhere in the story, in any of the memories she relates or the present-day details, could I find evidence of a real, loving, trusting relationship. Which was very sad. Beneath it al, beneath everything Jocelyne tells you, there lies this deeply-buried need for revenge, to set Jo up and watch him fall, see him pay, take out all the insecurities and disappointments and hurt on this weak and immature man.

As you can see, there’s quite a lot going on here, much more than there seems at first. And in the end, both Jo and Jo (a once in a million chance that she would marry someone with the same name as her – a nice ironic touch, that, but also a kind of foreshadowing in and of itself) pay dearly for that one winning lottery ticket. For a story about human values and our relationships not just with each other but with money – its ability to corrode and destroy and poison juxtaposed with its ability to make dreams come true – it succeeds admirably. As a story, I found it a bit hit-and-miss. But thought-provoking, definitely thought-provoking, and full of a realistically conflicted, touching sense of humanity.

I received an e-galley of this book to review courtesy of the publisher via France Book Tours and Netgalley; however, I read and reviewed my own bought copy (UK edition) from my personal collection.

3 out of 5 giraffes

My Wish List banner

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About the Author:
Grégoire Delacourt
Grégoire Delacourt was born in Valenciennes, France, in 1960. His first novel, L’Écrivain de la Famille, was published in 2011 and won five literary prizes. My Wish List has been a runaway number-one bestseller in France; publication rights have been sold in more than twenty-five countries. Delacourt lives in Paris, where he runs an advertising agency with his wife.

See more on his French website: Grégoire Delacourt
Follow him on Facebook | Goodreads

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GIVEAWAY

My Wish List

To celebrate the North American release of My Wish List (March 2014), the wonderful people at Viking and Penguin Books have 1 paperback (ARC or ecopy) for me to give away – open to US/Canada residents only. To enter, please fill out the form below. Giveaway ends Tuesday 25th March 2014 (Sydney time) and the winner will be notified by email the next day. (If the winner does not respond within 48 hours I will have to choose a new winner.)

3 comments to Review: The List of My Desires

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