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Terror and Tenderness in 'Suite Francaise'
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Terror and Tenderness in 'Suite Francaise'


More now from someone else who loves words. This summer we've been asking authors to recommend their favorite books, ones they pass along saying you must read this. Elizabeth Strout picked a book she couldn't put down when it came out earlier this year.

Ms. ELIZABETH STROUT (Author, Amy and Isabelle): I've been suggesting this book, Suite Francaise, to all my friends. What first drew me to it is the story of its author, Irene Nemirovsky. She was killed at the camps in Auschwitz soon after completing it. Her little daughters escaped. They took the suitcase that contained the manuscript they'd seen their mother working on. But for 60 years it was too painful for them to look at.

I wondered if the novel itself could hold its own against the drama of such a backdrop. Well, it certainly does. The first book tells of the exodus from Paris on the eve of its invasion. People spill onto the streets. We see the car with the mattress tied to the roof, the artist griping to his lover, the excited children. Each character brings their thread of urgency that swells with the surging wave of refugees. And yet there's a remarkable restraint.

We see this all as a grieving, compassionate God might have seen it. Even cats and birds are given their momentary point of view. The second book, Dolce, concerns itself with the daily details of an occupied village. With Germans living in the homes of townspeople there is a hesitant shared humanity.

Lucile begins a friendship with a German soldier occupying her home. She understands her dependency on this man and she becomes afraid of an exquisitely intense sensation, a mixture of tenderness and terror. The book itself is full of tenderness and terror. The combination can produce transcendence.

Here's the character of Maurice Michaud walking along beside his wife on the way out of Paris.

He was not really unhappy. He had a unique way of thinking. He didn't consider himself that important. In his own eyes, he was not that rare and irreplaceable creature that most people imagine about themselves.

To me, there's something comforting here, as though for a moment we readers cease being the stumbling, half-conscious beings we are, involved in our own exoduses, our own panics and losses, and understand we've been freed from what James Joyce has called the painful character of the ultimate functions of separate existence. A good book can do that, I think. A great one always does.

BLOCK: Elizabeth Strout wrote the novel, Amy and Isabelle. Our series You Must Read This continues online at

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