Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ensemble, c’est tout (oddly translated as Hunting and Gathering)

Some novels demand to be reread quickly. In the case of Ensemble, c’est tout, I saw the movie, read the book, saw the movie again and reread the book in a matter of weeks. Maybe a little obsessive in hindsight, but there is so much depth here that even after rereading it for a third time last year, I feel like there’s a lot I haven’t absorbed.

Originally published in French (I have to admit that I haven’t read the English translation, though), Ensemble, c’est tout is set in Paris and revolves are the lives of Camille, Philibert, Franck and, later on, Franck’s grandmother Paulette.

I usually have trouble with stories that have more than one main-ish character or many storylines. In most cases I am dissatisfied with how the author brings everything together at the end. But that might be the key to Anna Gavalda’s novel: she doesn’t wait until the end to bring the characters together, but neither does she abandon their separate storylines once they are together. The beauty of this is that her characters feel like real people: they have lives together and lives apart, and the story doesn’t fall apart in expressing that.

Camille is an artist who works as a night-cleaner in an office building rather than acknowledge her talent. Philibert is an incredible historian who can’t get into a master’s program because of his nervous stutter, so instead he sells postcards outside of Parisian museums. Franck is a chef, highly skilled but angry at life. And Paulette is Franck’s grandmother; she’s too old to continue living by herself in her beautiful garden and, after a bad fall, is placed in a home, much to her chagrin.

Obviously, these are pretty one-dimensional portraits of the characters that make up Gavalda’s story, but in some ways that’s the most appropriate way to describe them because, at least for the first chunk of the book, they are only able to see themselves as one-dimensional. Later, though, as they are forced into human contact (they all end up living together in an apartment Philibert is looking after for his family) their view of themselves and of each other changes.

Ensemble, c’est tout translates roughly as “together, that’s all” or “together, that’s everything” and is actually taken directly from a line of dialogue spoken by Camille toward the end of the novel. It may seem like a fairly simple sentiment, but it gets at the heart of the issue Gavalda is exploring here: how do you let someone in and acknowledge that being yourself, alone, isn’t enough?

It isn’t that Gavalda is saying that you should allow other people to define your worth; rather, she’s saying that without opening yourself up to others, you’ll never really know who you are. And she does that without making this a story about the “power of love” (although it wouldn’t be fully honest to say this isn’t a love story to some degree). Rather, it’s a story about letting others see you the way you see yourself, and trusting them to understand and love you anyway.

Ensemble, c'est tout

by Anna Gavalda

First published in 2004 (cover image shown from J'ai Lu edition)


  1. thank you this helped my understanding of this book.

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