Jenina's Reviews > She Came to Stay

She Came to Stay by Simone de Beauvoir
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Oct 20, 2008

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Read in January, 2009

This is billed as the book SDB wrote when one of Sartre's lovers (Olga Kosakievics) entered their lives and threatened to disrupt the famous partnership about which so much has been speculated. This description doesn't do the book justice.

It does, nevertheless, need to be admitted from the start that Beauvoir is not remembered best for her novels and this one illustrates why: this is no literary classic. It is not a page turner, not a tour de force - at times I had to make myself pick it up to get on reading it.

She Came To Staty is interesting because it is an illustrative non-philosophical tract that (as Fullbrook & Fullbrook write in Sex and Philosophy, see my review) pre-dates some of Sartre's formal arguments. It is most easily enjoyable as a historical document of the way things were in France in the pre-War period, when SDB wrote the book. It is most compelling as an insight into SDB herself - in do doubt one of the most intriguing published minds of the 20th century and a formidable intellect.

Was she a feminist? Yes - if that means someone who, having been born at a time when women were supposed to get married and settle down, simply didn't, and did the attention-getting things she did. But she was more a woman of her time than this description would suggest. Francoise (the SDB character in the book) was always secondary to Pierre (the Sartre character). Francoise's attempts at independent 'being' were always relative to Pierre and his status.

He, on the other hand, was self-centred, rather arrogant, unempathetic, unsensuous - albeit devoted to Francoise. For many 21st century women, he might also come across as being a little too cerebral. The Francoise-Pierre relationship is almost platonic to the point that it wouldn't surprise modern readers that both parties looked for sensual pleasures elsewhere!

In fact, that was one of the unexpected aspects of the novel: the Francoise-Pierre partnership most resembles a 21st-century conception of an open marriage, in which both partners are committed to each other but allow extra-marital adventures. On the part of Pierre, they are mostly transitory and venal. That's why the entry of the Xaviere (Olga) character is so disruptive - it is not venal because she is Francoise's (SDB's) friend/protegee, and Xaviere plays on this. By contrast, Francoise's extra-partnership liaison is with Gerbert, a colleague of hers and friend of Pierre's, who is adamant he did not want a relationship that mirrored Pierre's 'affaires' but something more meaningful - as long as it it wasn't a commitment that tied him down, of course.

Was SDB in effect saying that women have higher standards than men, and capable of a higher degree of faithfulness? That certainly seems to be one of the novel's messages, as perceived by this woman reader anyway. Was she saying that women could be catty bitches? Yes - that's what Xaviere was. Was she saying women could be high minded? Yes ... but given a post-feminist reading of the novel, that's debatable because Francoise, in the end, was the most successful vengeful female of them all, partly because she chose to operate under the mantle of maturity and intellectual high-mindedness ... and, it has to be said, under the unacknowledge 'protection' of a man - Pierre. If anything, this is more a post-feminist than a feminist novel.

But it is more than that. Reading between the lines with the benefit of anachronistic feminist and sociological background, She Came to Stay has something to say about same-sex love and affection, motherhood, maturity, commitment and the French intellectual middle class mentality and morality. There are characters and scenes that are evocative of Guernica, Picasso, Lawrence Durrel and Zorba the Greek (the book, not so much the film) and, of course, La Rive Gauche.

But, in the end, I'm not actually sure what SBD wants to say about how people (existentially?) relate to one another. One of the reasons it isn't 'a good read' is that it really is too introspective, and in this respect it favours (naturally) Francoise. But while she is integral and coherent and consistent within herself, the other characters are either developed too late in the story or simply uni-dimensional - Xaviere is just too adolescent and hippie-like to be real.

Still, this is worth reading because I am certain that different readers will take a wide range of different impressions and conclusions from this single work of not-exactly-brilliant literature.
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