Friday, 1 August 2014

Book Review: Betty Blue by Philippe Djian last it’s August and here we are in the middle of the so-called dog days, thus of the hottest period of the year. What better reason to pick a book from my crammed shelves that evokes a sweltering hot day already in its first sentence? Despite all 37.2 degrees in the original French title of Betty Blue by Philippe Djian don’t speak of summer heat. The novel, which I’m reviewing for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, is about the feverish as well as doomed love between the passive narrator who refuses to complicate his life making plans and beautiful Betty who isn’t willing to put up with the petty life that seems to be destined for her. 

Philippe Djian was born in Paris, France, in June 1949. After graduation from École supérieure de journalisme in Paris, he travelled to South America for a reportage and upon his return to France worked in different odd jobs for several years. His first published literary work was a collection of short stories titled 50 contre 1 (50 against 1) in 1981 which was followed by the novels Bleu comme l'enfer (1982; Blue Like Hell) and Zone érogène (1984; Erogenous Area). Only his third novel Betty Blue (37°2 le matin) established the writer’s fame. After that he brought out more novels and short story collections in short intervals. Among those later works Unforgivable (Impardonnables: 2009) and Consequences (Incidences: 2010) have been translated into English. Love Song (2013) and Chéri-Chéri (2014) are his latest published works. Boris Djian lives in Biarritz, France.

The story of Betty Blue begins on a hot summer day in a remote French seaside resort where the nameless narrator hides from the craze of modern civilisation. His job as a handyman allows him to take things easy and enjoy a quiet life, but love brings confusion into his well-balanced routine. Betty is the most beautiful girl that he has ever known and he is up to the ears in love with her. They have been having a passionate affair already for some time, when one day she quits her job as a waitress because her (married) boss made unmistakably sexual advances. It’s the first time that he sees her in a rage and he realises that it’s wiser to stay out of her way. The following day she moves in with him. The owner of the resort doesn’t approve of Betty’s constant presence and demands that she takes a share in the work in the resort. The narrator, however, doesn’t dare to tell her the whole truth, so when she finds out eventually that they are supposed to paint all the bungalows and not just one she gets into a fit of rage and pours a bucket of paint over the owner’s car. The narrator immediately apologises and cleans up the mess, something that Betty can’t understand at all because she never puts up with anything and always takes her revenge. The following day she is still angry at him because he doesn’t stand up for himself and throws several storing boxes out of the window. He doesn’t care until it’s the turn of the one containing his notebooks. The fact that he doesn’t want her to throw them out makes her curious and she spends the next couple of hours reading them. She thinks that he is a gifted writer and sees their big chance to escape mediocrity. Betty sets fire to the bungalow, so they are forced to leave in a hurry. They go to Paris. While the narrator is doing odd jobs for a living, Betty is typing his hand-written notebooks because she is convinced that publishers must be craving for his book. When the first rejection notice arrives, she flies into rage again and takes her revenge. From then on her fits of rage get ever worse, but the narrator refuses to believe that she is mentally ill. He is crazy in love with her and tries to protect her. Alas her fate is doomed.

The entire story of Betty Blue is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator who is at the same time the male protagonist. To show the constant struggle for happiness and some kind of “normality” Philippe Djian uses an unpretentious and colloquial language that makes the novel resemble an autobiographical account, a private journal or a long stream of consciousness as some reviewers stated. Its tone is “blue” which accounts for the English title of the book. On the whole all characters are depicted in a very realistic and authentic way, especially Betty whose deteriorating state of mind is made apparent in very powerful pictures. The author also succeeds in conveying the narrator’s helplessness in view of Betty’s problems and his inner development from someone who just lets himself drift through life without direction to a man who takes life into his own hands. At the same time, I must say that I can’t help feeling confused (even annoyed) by the fact that none of Betty’s and the narrator’s usually violent acts, not to say crimes, has legal aftermaths of any kind for them. In one case the police is at least involved, but it leads to nothing.

All things considered, Betty Blue by Philippe Djian has been as very gripping summer read which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m not surprised that the story has been adapted for the screen. And of course, I’m recommending the novel.


  1. Nice review, Edith. I'm new to your blog, but saw Emma's recommendation so thought I'd come and have a look. Glad I did. I live in Crete, where August is REALLY hot, so this sounds like a good summer read for me!

    1. Welcome to my blog, Andrew! I'm glad that you liked my review and I hope that you'll like the book as well. Thanks for your comment from REALLY hot Crete. Nice island, but not for me... at least not during the summer. Actually, I'm enjoying this year's changeable and pleasantly cool Austrian summer. ;-)

  2. I LOVE PHLIPPE DJIAN. Now I've said it in capital letters.
    Betty Blue is not my favourite one. You may want to try Echine or Maudit Manège or Incidences (Consequences in English)
    The two first ones are not available in English but they may be available in German.

    Did you know he wrote the lyrics of songs by Stefan Eicher? They're good.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Emma! Looks like you're a great fan of Philippe Djian. It would be interesting to read others of his books. Betty Blue was quite good although there were some aspects that I didn't like too much. I'll see if I can find one of the three novel you mentioned to see if they are even better. No need for a translation. I had no problems reading Betty Blue in French. I always prefer original versions ;-).

      No, I had no idea that he wrote song lyrics too.


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