All the Way – Marie Darrieussecq

All the Way

I chose this book because it is a coming of age story, a recurring theme in my reading at the moment, because my own manuscript is a coming of age story too. I raced through this one, once I got used to Marie Darrieussecq’s free-wheeling, almost stream of conscious, style. She drops in and out of loose scenes with lots of skill.

This is the story of Solange, a 10-year-old girl living in a little French village. It documents her puberty and growing sexual experiences among her school friends. The scope is small, set almost entirely in the small village but taking place over about four years.

Darrieussecq leaps straight into the story and it takes a while to work out who the characters are and how they relate to each other, but once I got orientated, I really enjoyed it.

Reviewers have made much of the sexual awakening that the story portrays. The title says it all, as do the sections – ‘Getting it’, ‘Doing it’, ‘Doing it again’ and yes, this book is primarily about the sexual initiation of Solange. Its an erotic book and the sex is at times graphic as are the descriptions of her first periods, but it didn’t feel contrived. Some scenes made me wince with remembrance.

But for me the power of the story was in the telling of what its like to reach puberty and grow into a teenager. I really admired Marie Darrieussecq’s ability to climb back into the head of a teenager. The author is about the same age I am and casting myself back to my teenage and early twenties years is something I’ve been trying to do in my own novel. Its hard to remember how self-conscious, deluded, and down-right preposterous we all were then, more than 30 years ago in my case.

I particularly enjoyed one scene where Solange is with her girlfriends and they are all talking at cross purposes, desperately trying to sound worldly and grown up, spouting such gems as: ‘Real women are vaginistic, according to Nathalie. The others are clitoristic. The main thing is to find the G-spot’. How Solange is treated by Arnaud, a slightly older boy, also shocks but is totally in keeping with the brutal and disturbing nature of many teenage relationships.

But its not all hilarity at the musings of teenage girls and the disturbing elements centre around Solange’s relationship with her ‘babysitter’. We don’t know (at least I didn’t, unless I missed it) how much older he is than her until near the end, when their relationship becomes disturbingly complicated but he’s at least 10 years older than her. Its this relationship and how it evolves that drives the fairly basic plot and provides the climax, which although devastating in its way, isn’t isn’t overtly surprising. It occurs right near the end of the story and the casual dismissive way that Solange moves on is devastatingly brutal in the way only a teenage girl can be.

The backdrop to Solange’s maturing is her parents disintegrating marriage and the author shows us, without telling, how that is impacting on Solange and leaving her unanchored. In fact I would say the novel’s strength is its drive to let the reader figure things out for themselves, not spell everything out. Its something that I think is very hard to achieve and the opacity of it annoyed me for the first few pages until I settled into her writing style.

The prose isn’t overly ornate and she doesn’t focus on long descriptions of place and environment, but she does an excellent job of dropping cues to remind us we are in the 1980s. The references to the Mastermind game, TV tennis and teased hair transported me straight back to those days of Madonna and Levi 501s. A great simile shows the tone of the whole book – ‘The telephone is sitting there, horribly accessible, like a chocolate pudding with the spoon already in it.’

The characterisation is also very strong, but focuses only on Solange in depth and Monsieur Bihotz, her babysitter. Several secondary characters are much less well defined but the author’s real gift is her ability to portray the depths of a teenager’s complicated and contradictory mind in a funny, sad and warm way.