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Anna Gavalda

Born in Paris in 1970, Anna Gavalda published her first work, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere, a critically acclaimed collection of short stories, while working as a French teacher in a Paris area high school. The collection sold a half a million copies in her native France. It was published in twenty-six languages, including English, as I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere in 2003.

She has since published several novels, all of which have been bestsellers across Europe. Her 2005 novel Ensemble, c'est tout, published in English as Hunting and Gathering was made into a film in 2007 starring Audrey Tatou. Her first novel, Je l'aimais (Someone I Loved) was adapted to film in 2009 and stars Daniel Auteuil.

"Gavalda writes warm-hearted fiction, with plenty of culture, emotion and thoughtfulness," says The Telegraph and Publishers Weekly called Hunting and Gathering a "a Gallic charmer anchored by breezy and poignant storytelling". Vogue praised Gavalda as an author "graced with the Gallic virtues of dry wit and almost involuntary elegance".

According to the publisher, Gavalda's latest work, L'Échapée belle or French Leave, tells the story of four siblings in search of the happiness they knew as children and the bonds that once united them. Simon, Garance and Lola flee a dull family wedding (and Simon's wife) to visit their younger brother, Vincent, who is working as a guide at a chateau in the countryside. For a few hours, they forget the many demands adulthood places upon them and lose themselves in a day of laughter. Lighthearted, tender and funny, a parable on escaping to the past to find the future, French Leave is "a tribute to sibling relationships, local Loire wines, and the art of being together."

Belletrista is pleased to present this excerpt of Anna Gavalda's French Leave, published recently in English by Europa Editions.

French Leave, Chapter One
By Anna Gavalda
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

With one buttock in space and my hand still on the car door, I hadn't even had time to sit down and already my sister-in-law was nagging me:

"For heaven's sake … didn't you hear the horn? We've been here for ten minutes!"

"Good morning," I answered.

My brother turned around. A little wink.

"You okay, sweetheart?"

"I'm good."

"You want me to put your things in the trunk?"

"No, thanks. All I have is this little bag, and my dress … I'll stick it up back."

"Is that your dress?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at the ball of chiffon on my lap.


"What … what is it?"

"A sari."

"I see …"

No, you don't see," I corrected her gently, "you'll see when I put it on."

Was that a grimace?

"Can we get going?" asked my brother.

"Yes. I mean, no … Can you stop off at the corner store, there's something I need to get … "

My sister-in-law sighed.

"Now what do you need?"

"Some depilatory cream."

"And you get that at the corner store?"

"Oh, I get everything from Rashid! Absolutely everything!"

She didn't believe me.

"All set, now? Can we go?"


"Aren't you going to fasten your seat belt?"


"Why don't you fasten it?"

"Claustrophobia," I replied.

And before she could start in on her refrain about transplants and the horrors of public hospitals, I added, "Besides, I want to sleep a little. I'm exhausted."

My brother smiled. "Did you just get up?"

"I never went to bed," I explained, yawning.

Which was a patent lie, of course. I'd slept for a few hours. But I said it to annoy my sister-in-law. And I was right on target, bingo. That's what I like about her: I'm always right on target.

"Where were you this time?" she grumbled, rolling her eyes to the sky.

"At home."

"You threw a party?"

"No, I was playing cards."

"Playing cards?!"

"Yes. Poker."

She shook her head. Not too hard, though. Wouldn't want to muss the blow-dry.

"How much did you lose?" asked my brother, amused.

"Nothing. This time I won."

Deafening silence.

"Might we ask how much?" she relented, adjusting her designer shades.

"Three thousand."

"Three thousand! Three thousand what?"

"Well … Euros," I said, acting naïve, "rubles wouldn't be much use, now, would they … "

I chuckled as I curled up. I had just given my little Carine something to chew on for the rest of the trip.

I could hear the cogs turning in her brain: Three thousand Euros … click click click click … How many dry shampoos and aspirin tablets would she have to sell to earn three thousand Euros?… click click click click …Not to mention employee benefits, and business tax, and local taxes, and her lease, subtract the VAT … How many times did she have to put on her white coat to earn three thousand Euros? And the Social Security … add eight, take away two … and paid vacation … makes ten, multiply by three … click click click …

Yes. I was chuckling. Lulled by the purr of their sedan, my nose buried in the fold of my arm and my legs tucked up under my chin. I was pretty proud of myself, because my sister-in-law, she's a piece of work.

My sister-in-law Carine studied pharmacy, but she'd rather you said medicine, so she's a pharmacist, and she has a drugstore, but she'd rather you called it a pharmacy.

She likes to complain about her bookkeeping just when it's time for dessert, and she wears a surgeon's blouse buttoned up to her chin with a thermal adhesive label where her name is stitched between two blue caduceus logos. These days she sells mostly firming creams for buttocks and carotene capsules because that's what brings in the most cash; she likes to say that she has "optimized her non-med sector."

My sister-in-law Carine is fairly predictable.

When we heard about our stroke of luck—that we were about to have a purveyor of anti-wrinkle creams in our own family, a licensed Clinique vendor and Guerlain reseller—my sister Lola and I jumped up on her like little puppies. Oh! What a warm welcome we had in store for her that day! We promised that from then on we would always go to her for our shopping, and we were even willing to call her Doctor or Professor Lariot-Molinoux so we'd be in her good books.

We'd even take the suburban train just to go out to see her! That's really a big deal for Lola and me, to take the train all the way out to Poissy.

We suffer physically whenever we're dragged past the Boulevards des Maréchaux.

But there was no need to go out there, because she took us by the arm at the end of that first Sunday dinner and confessed, lowering her eyes, "You know … uh … I can't give you any discount because … uh … if I start with you, after that … well, you understand … after that I … after that you don't know where it will end, do you?"

"Not even a teeny tiny percentage?" replied Lola with a laugh, "Not even any samples?"

"Oh, yes … yes, samples, yes. No problem."

And when Carine left that day, clinging to our brother so he wouldn't fly away, Lola grumbled to me as she blew kisses all the while from the balcony, "She can stick her samples you-know-where."

I totally agreed with her, and we shook out the tablecloth, and changed the subject.

Now we like to ride her about all that. Every time we see her, I tell her about my friend Sandrine, who is a flight attendant, and about the discounts she can get us at the duty-free.

For example:

"Hey, Carine …Give me a price for Estée Lauder's Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12."

You should see our Carine, lost in thought. She concentrates, closes her eyes, thinks of her list, calculates her margin, deducts the taxes, and eventually goes: "Forty-five?"

I turn to Lola: "Do you remember how much you paid?"

"Hmm … Sorry? What are you talking about?"

"Estée Lauder's Double Exfoliating Nitrogen Generator with Vitamin B12, the one Sandrine brought back for you the other day?"

"What about it?"

"How much did you pay?"

"Gosh, how do you expect me to remember … around twenty Euros, I think … "

Carine repeats what she said, choking on her words: "Twenty Euros! Estée Lauder's D-E-N-G with Vitamin B12! Are you sure about that?"

"I think so … "

"I'm sorry, but at that price, it's got to be a counterfeit! What a shame, girls, you've been taken for a ride … They put Nivea in a counterfeit jar and no one's the wiser. I hate to tell you," she insists, triumphant, "but your cream is rubbish. Absolute rubbish!"

Lola looks absolutely devastated: "Are you sure?"

"Ab-so-lutely sure. I know what the production costs are, after all! They only use essential oils at Estée—"

This is where I turn to my sister and say, "You don't happen to have it with you, do you?"

"Have what?"

"The cream …"

"No, I don't think so … Oh, yes! I just might … Wait, let me look in my bag."

She comes back with a jar and hands it to the expert.

Said expert puts on her half-moon glasses and inspects the offending item from every angle. We watch her in silence, waiting with bated breath, vaguely uneasy.

"Well, Doctor?" ventures Lola.

"Yes, yes, it's Estée Lauder all right … I recognize the smell … and the texture … Lauder has a very special texture. It's incredible … how much did you say you paid? Twenty Euros? That's incredible," sighs Carine, putting her glasses back in their case, and the case back in her Biotherm pouch, and the Biotherm pouch back in her Tod's handbag. "That's incredible … at that level, it's cost price. How do they expect the rest of us to survive if they undercut prices like that? That's unfair practice. No more,no less. It's … there's no more margin so, they … It's downright disgusting. It saddens me, you know … "

Carine is plunged into an abyss of perplexity. She turns to her cup for consolation, stirs her sugarless sugar into a coffee without caffeine.

After that, the hardest part is to keep our cool as far as the kitchen, but when we finally get there, we begin cackling like turkey hens in heat. If our mother happens to go by, she says despairingly, "You two can be so nasty … " and Lola replies, offended, "Uh … excuse me? I actually paid seventy-two Euros for that piece of shit!" And we burst out laughing again, holding our ribs above the dishwasher.

"Well that's good, with everything you won last night you'll be able to contribute to the gas, for once … "

"Gas AND toll," I said, rubbing my nose.

I couldn't see her, but I could sense her smug little smile and both hands placed nice and flat on her knees squeezed tight.

I raised my hips to pull a big note out of my jeans pocket.

"Put that away," said my brother.

Up she piped: "But, uh … really Simon, I don't see why—"

"I said put it away," my brother said, without raising his voice.

She opened her mouth, closed it, wriggled a little, opened her mouth again, dusted off her thigh, touched her sapphire, put it straight, inspected her nails, opened her mouth to say something … and then closed it again.

Things were not going too smoothly. If she was keeping her mouth shut, it meant they'd had a fight. If she was keeping her mouth shut, it meant that my brother had raised his voice.

Which is a rare thing.

My brother never gets annoyed, never says anything bad about anybody, doesn't have an unkind bone in his body, and does not judge his fellow man. My brother is from another planet. Venus, maybe …

We adore him. We ask him: "How do you manage to stay so calm?" He shrugs his shoulders: "I don’t know." We ask him again: "Don't you ever feel like letting go sometimes? Saying really mean, nasty things?"

"But that's why I have you, gorgeous … " he replies, with an angelic smile.

Yes, we adore him. In fact, everybody adores him. Our nannies, his teachers, his professors, his colleagues at work, his neighbors … everybody.

When we were younger, we'd sprawl on the carpet in his bedroom, listening to his records and drowning him with kisses while he did our homework, and we played at imagining our future. Our predictions for Simon: "You are too nice … some bitch will get her claws into you."


I had a pretty good idea why they'd been arguing. It was probably because of me. I could reproduce their conversation down to the last sigh.

Yesterday afternoon, I asked my brother if they could give me a lift."What a question … " he said, politely offended, on the phone. After that, the charming chick must have thrown her tantrum, because coming to pick me up means a major detour. My brother must have shrugged his shoulders, and she'd have laid it on even thicker: "But darling, from her place to the road for Limousin … The Place Clichy is not exactly a shortcut, as far as I know … "

He had to force himself to be firm, they went to bed angry, and she slept at Hotel Cold Shoulder.

She got up in a bad mood. While drinking her organic chicory, she started up again: "No, really, your lazy sister, she could have gotten up and come out here … Honestly, it's hardly her work that's wearing her out, or is it?"

He didn't react. He was studying the map.

She went to sulk in her Kaufman & Broad bathroom (I remember our first visit … With some sort of purple chiffon scarf around her neck, she was twirling around among her potted plants and commenting on her Petit Trianon, absolutely gurgling: "Here we have the kitchen … so functional. And now the dining room … utterly convivial. And as for the living room … so versatile. Here's Léo's bedroom … isn't it playful? Now this is the laundry room … just indispensable. And of course the bathroom … double, natch. And as for our bedroom… so luminous. Here's … " It was as if she wanted to sell it to us. Simon drove us back to the station and just as we were leaving, we said, "You've got a beautiful house … " "Yes, it's functional," he echoed, nodding his head. Neither Lola nor Vincent nor I uttered a single word on the way back. We were all kind of sad, each in our own corner; we were probably thinking the same thing, that we had lost our older brother, and that life would be a lot tougher without him… ), and then, she must have looked at her watch at least ten times between their house and my boulevard, she must have groaned at every traffic light, and when finally she blew the horn—because I'm sure she's the one who blew the horn—I didn't hear them.

Oh woe, oh woe is me.

My dear Simon, I am so sorry to have put you through all that … Next time, I'll make other arrangements, I promise you.

I'll do better. I'll go to bed early. I won't drink anymore. I won't play cards.

By next time, I'll have settled down, you know … of course I will. I'll find someone. A nice boy. A white guy. An only son. A guy who's got a driver's license and a Toyota that runs on colza.

I'll get me one who works at the post office, because his dad works at the post office, and who'll put in his twenty-nine hours a week without ever getting sick. A nonsmoker. That's just what I put on my Meetic profile. You don't believe me? Well, you'll see. Why are you laughing, you dork?

That way I won't bug you anymore on Saturday morning to go to the country. I'll tell my little honeybunch from the post office: "Hey honeybunch! Will you drive me to my cousin's wedding with your beautiful GPS that even includes Corsica and Martinique and Tahiti?" and wham, all taken care of.

And why are you laughing like an idiot, now? Do you think I'm not clever enough to manage the way other people do? To find myself a nice guy with a yellow cardigan and a Euro Disney badge? A fiancé I can go and buy Celio boxer shorts for during my lunch break? Oh, yes … just thinking about it makes me go all wobbly … a decent sort. Serious. Simple. Batteries included, not to mention the savings-account booklet.

And he'd never worry about things. And he'd be only too glad to compare prices in the store with the ones in the catalogue and he'd say, "No two ways about it, darling, the difference between Ikea and Habitat, you're really just paying for service … "

And we'll enter the house through the basement so as not to get the entrance dirty. And we'll leave our shoes at the bottom of the steps not to get the stairway dirty. And we'll be friends with the neighbors who will be incredibly nice. And we'll have a built-in barbecue and that will be really awesome for the kids, because the housing estate will be super safe like my sister-in-law says and …

Oh, bliss.

It was too awful. I fell asleep.

Book Cover of French Leave Book Cover of Consolation Book Cover of Hunting and Gathering Book Cover of I Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere Book Cover of Someone I Loved

French Leave was first published as L'Échappée belle by le dilettante, ©2009.
First Publication 2011 by Europa Editions, Translation by Alison Anderson. Translation © 2011 by Europa Editions.
Reprinted by permission of Europa Editions.