Sunday, 2 August 2020

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon
First published in French as Trois chambres à Manhattan in 1946. English language translation by Marc Romano and Lawrence G Blochman published by The New York Review Of Books in 2003.

One of my Classics Club Challenge reads.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Two people who didn't know each other and who had come together by a miracle in the great city, and who now clung desperately to each other, as if already they felt a chilly solitude settling in.

A divorced actor and a lonely woman, both adrift in New York, meet by chance in an all-night diner. It is the start of something, though neither is sure what. As they move through neon-lit streets, bars, rented rooms and cheap motels, these two lost souls struggle to understand what it is that has brought them, in spite of themselves, inexorably together.

While reading Three Bedrooms In Manhattan, I was frequently reminded of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's comment last week that her parents "did not raise me to accept abuse from men". The woman at the centre of this novel, Kay, certainly does accept abuse from the man, Francois, and not only accepts his actions but expects to have to do so. Three Bedrooms is narrated in the first person by Francois so, as readers, we are party to his ugly innermost thoughts whereas we only see what Kay chooses to show Francois and his interpretations of behaviour he imagines for her. Francois has low self-esteem but instead of acknowledging this to himself, he repeatedly blames Kay for 'making him' think that she will leave him or humiliate him in some way. These imaginings leave him so angry that at one point he even repeatedly punches her in the face yet, later, neither Kay nor Francois make any mention of the violence. I was left wondering how much of what our narrator tells us is actually happening. Is Kay so desperate and inured to male abuse that she blithely accepts a beating, or did Francois lose himself in daydreaming an attack and not actually hit Kay in reality?

Simenon has a deep understanding of both these characters and I found them utterly compelling to read about even while I was often appalled at the way they treat each other. Both are depressed and bitterly lonely, on the edge of being completely broke and desperate to grab hold of the idea of a great romance. Their chance meeting leads to an instant, intense folie a deux that plays out mostly during endless walking and drinking through night-time New York or in the three eponymous bedrooms. I loved Simenon's observations of 1940s New York. Even in pre-dawn hours there is an energy to the city and a shabby seediness to its people. This background gives Three Bedrooms its atmosphere and I could clearly imagine the novel as a film noir movie. It could work brilliantly as a stage play too.

Weirdly Three Bedrooms In Manhattan has many of the ingredients of a traditional romance novel, but the dysfunctional relationship that develops is anything but romantic. Instead I think Simenon gives us an authentic portrait of loneliness. There is very little happiness in this novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Etsy Find!
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Books by George Simenon / Contemporary fiction / Books from Belgium

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