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Cold Heart

Translated from the French by Holly James

A lawyer from a prominent French family, Constance Debré left both her career and her husband in 2015 to become a full-time writer. Love Me Tender, Debré´s fourth book and the second of hers available in an English translation, begins its narrative with her coming out as a lesbian to her ex-husband, Laurent. It´s been a couple of years since the couple separated, and initially he doesn´t seem to quite get it: Constance may tell him about a woman she´s begun dating over lunch, but when he walks her to her flat in Paris, she has to repeatedly deny him joining her upstairs. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Laurent begins a campaign of cruelty: he prevents her from seeing their 8-year-old son, Paul.

The heart of Love Me Tender documents Constance´s life after receiving this painful news. She responses with little affect, almost as though the novella is a series of short journal entries, clipped and cold. Despite being a prominent lawyer within France, she fails to secure any remedy from the judicial system or from child services. The bureaucracies are slow to help her gain rights to see her son, but the homophobia for her lesbianism, and its association by her ex-husband with pedophilia--are bitterly immediate.

Meanwhile, Constance divests herself of anything she deems unnecessary. Unable to see her young son, she moves into a series of increasingly smaller apartments all around Paris, and for a spell only crashes on other people´s couches intermittently. Swimming and smoking cigarettes become part of her daily routine, as well as selling all but her most essential belongings.

And sex. In short chapters, Debré "reports" her having multiple affairs with numerous women--older, younger, with kids and without, some she meets at a cafe and some she hails on the street while they are riding a scooter. A few she sees more than once, but none of them have names, and only a couple have a single initial. The sex seems to be almost functional, intentionally lacking in any kind of emotional depth, no more or less important than her regular laps at the pool.

Love Me Tender intentionally blurs fact and fiction, and there is an almost skeletal quality to the prose here. Just like the objects in her life after Laurent did everything he could to prevent her from seeing their son Paul (after an unbearably long time, she does get to see him again), Debré´s writing is minimal, lacking in ornamentation. The novella edges close to the emotions at times--particularly when Constance experiences the discrimination of being both a lesbian and a mother, as well as her evolving views on the inherent burden of parenting--but these are kept on a short leash. I am sure that the choice of restraint is intentional, but I craved to learn more from Constance--both the character and the author--about her point of view of the events unfolding within the story. The pace is brisk, the description of events swift and lacking in pretense; ultimately, Love Me Tender is less a sexy or an angry book, and more of a sad one.

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