By Eva López-López (she/they)
Love Me Tender by Constance Debré, translated by Holly James, is a book about motherhood, lesbianism, and finding a place in the world when everything you know falls away. It kept me reeling. I didn’t exactly know if I loved it or hated it as it put me in complex emotional states that left my feelings scattered but, ultimately, it’s a delicately sculpted novel that invites you to look inward and self-reflect.
The book starts with Constance, after three years of informal separation, revealing to her husband Laurent that she is seeing a woman, and it bothers her that she is still married. Laurent and Constance finally divorce, but this changes much more than her relationship status. Their new life starts gradually. Laurent periodically makes excuses that prevent Constance from seeing their eight-year-old son, Paul. Laurent has been running a smear campaign against her. Its biggest impact is on Paul, who begins to hate her and cannot stand seeing her.
There is a painful custody battle, with the judge ultimately ruling in favour of Laurent. He believes the testimony of the brainwashed Paul and a scorned ex-husband, who states that Constance’s friends ‘may or may not be paedophiles’. It is decided: Constance cannot see her child any more, not even on weekends, not even once a month. This blow to Constance shatters her. She throws herself into her writing, swimming, and casual sex with women.
The novel’s prose is similar to Sally Rooney’s: deceptively simple to read, whilst hitting the reader with waves of great feeling that threaten, at times, to take you under. Debré also has a disdain towards quotation marks, which I do not mind but others may find this style initially confusing and frustrating. You will find yourself seamlessly falling into the book’s rhythms. I often felt like I was reading a diary somebody forgot to hide. Deeply intimate to read at times, I couldn’t stop myself from racing all the way to the end of the book. The rhythm is impeccable, every word is selected with the precision of a surgeon. I devoured each and every linguistic delight.
I did feel disdain towards the way Debré thinks about women and money at times, and this dampened my enjoyment, even though it is a work of fiction, it is autofiction, where the overt truth cannot help but slither in. Debré comes from a greatly privileged background, a family of politicians belonging to the French elite. However, in this book her family abandons her, and she finds herself stealing in supermarkets ‘for the fun of it’. She still has a cleaner in the shared flat she lives in, one she found thanks to connections to her past life. I could not grapple with the fact that she was living a life that not many could – without a stable job, only dedicating herself to her writing, having full economic independence, and swimming everyday – but would constantly claim that she was poor. She also approached relationships and sex unfeelingly and carelessly, something that made me feel deeply sorry for her partners.
Despite my moral judgements, I still found myself admiring the bravery and tenacity of the protagonist. She abandoned everything she knew: being a mother, a wife, and a lawyer. A life that from the outside looked perfect. Instead, she pursued her real life, one in which she wrote, swam, loved women, and lived disconnected from materiality, embracing an ascetic lifestyle. All things considered, this is a great book that will no doubt make you think about your life differently. Are you living like you wished you were living?