“Strike Your Heart” is a disarmingly simple yet deeply complex study of a mother-daughter relationship and its lifelong implications. The title is apt: The reader viscerally feels the book’s psychological blows.
Belgian author Amélie Nothomb — a prolific and popular novelist in France — uses blunt prose to deliver unassailable verdicts on the emotional distress that Marie visits upon her daughter Diane, her first child. They are the main characters, as well as stand-ins for anyone who experiences the love and pain of the human condition — which is to say all of us.
We first meet Marie as a pretty, preening, egotistical teenager who believes she will evade the anonymous torpor of provincial life and become the center of all France’s attention. In fact, she will marry a pharmacist and start having children at the age of 20. She develops a sort of pathological distance toward her daughter Diane, feeling herself supplanted from the moment her husband places the baby in her arms.
The precocious child becomes a perceptive narrator, sensing from a young age the coldness of the woman she calls “the goddess.” “Sometimes, the indifferent goddess would pick her up to change or bottle-feed her. This woman belonged so entirely to a foreign species that she managed to touch her without touching her, to look at her without seeing her.”
The problem appears to stem from pure jealousy. So starkly frozen out from her mother’s affection, the young girl constructs rationalizations. “The goddess loves me,” she muses, “it’s just that she loves me in a strange way, she doesn’t like to show she loves me because I’m a girl, and her love for me is a secret.”
Her yearning for acceptance slowly slips away, as her soft emotional core is supplanted by a tough practicality and rigorous intellect. She moves through school briskly, deflecting the pain as two more-favored siblings arrive, by moving in with her grandparents.
At 15, Diane leaves home for good, moving in with her self-assured friend Élisabeth. Élisabeth’s parents accept Diane as a second daughter, and “a new life began. At least three nights a week the girls went to the Opera to attend concerts.”
Revelations come suddenly as the story marches along, as it must; it is a slim volume, only 135 pages. There are some encouraging sidelights to Diane’s journey, but she can’t seem to shake her upbringing. “Home is where it hurts,” she concludes.
Ultimately, Diane handily succeeds in her academic career but remains estranged from her mother.
Pain radiates throughout these pages, sometimes to the point of feeling like overkill. The worst bad-mother tropes drop like anvils. But one can overlook this heavy-handedness to wade into the rivers of heartbreak that Nothomb so exquisitely navigates.
Diane never expresses much interest in romance. When a married female cardiology professor becomes Diane’s close friend, there is a frisson of sexual tension that is never fully explicated. But more than that, it is the start of a love-hate relationship that serves as a prism for the book’s central themes, including the relationships between women, the potential for life-affirming intimacy and the frailties of the female nature. Strife, deceit and inexorable weakness in the face of temptation: Pandora’s box and Eve rolled into one.
This professor, Olivia, is a portrait in calculation. She has a “brilliant career” and a “remarkable husband,” a mathematician. “As long as you did not try to talk to him, Stanislas was the ideal spouse, and she even had a child, so no one could reproach her for having ‘sacrificed her womanhood.’ ”
The wounded daughter who came from that union is now 12 years old and neglected by her distant mother — much as Diane was. Diane is moved to take her into her care, even teaching her to wash her hair.
The latter part of the book explores the relationship — yes, a painful one — between Diane and her mentor, Olivia. At this point, Diane is striving to become a cardiologist and helping Olivia publish academic papers and obtain tenure at the university where Diane is studying.
The concept of two heart doctors intertwined may seem pat, given the book’s title. But the heart is more than an organ, as Olivia notes: It is where the soul and thoughts lie, per ancient beliefs. But to continue the conceit, it is a mysterious thing; no one knows the map of the human heart.
“Strike Your Heart” is a finely honed, piercing novel. No wonder it is acclaimed in France. If you are human, it will strike your heart, too.
Michele Langevine Leiby is a Washington-based freelance writer who has contributed to The Washington Post Style and Arts sections and the Sunday Magazine.
By Amélie Nothomb. Translated by Alison Anderson. 135 pp. $14.