To be in your mid-twenties today often means being at a crossroads: the time between adventure and adulthood, between carelessness and commitment. In French author Anna Gavalda’s new work, “Life, Only Better,” (Europa, $17.00) this tumultuous time is on full display in two novellas, both of which explore a turning point in the life of two twenty-something Parisian residents: Mathilde and Yann.
We’ll begin with Mathilde, who quit studying art history in order to write fake online reviews designed to drum up business for her brother-in-law’s web design firm. She’s become disenchanted with the falseness of her life: the walls she’s built around herself with partying and spending; the insincerity of technology: “all these distractions that distract you from yourself…but which give you the illusion of being.” When she loses something very valuable, she falls apart; and then, to her surprise, begins to change herself for the better.
Yann’s novella follows a similar course: he finds himself going through the motions with work and love, but when a neighbor asks him to move a piece of furniture and then insists he join the family for dinner, Yann sees a whole new world of possibility in this man’s apartment. They were so happy, so open and generous. “I felt like a piece of frozen meat put out to thaw in the sunshine.”
And while the narrative structure of both novellas is similar, the characters and their journeys couldn’t be more different. Yann’s tale is one of personal growth; Mathilde’s arguably is too – that is, until the final line when all of her progress and strength becomes unraveled and she’s just another woman whose identity is wrapped up with a man. Given the beauty of her journey up until that moment, her ending is shockingly disappointing.
But perhaps that’s the point? Being in your mid-twenties often means taking two steps forward, one step back. And with writing this beautiful and charming, and heartbreakingly sincere, Gavalda makes the journey well worth the effort.