Hmph. Not only do French women never get fat but they apparently also grieve more fetchingly than we do. In “Delicacy,” by Parisian author David Foenkinos, a breathtaking young woman named Natalie is in an uncommonly happy marriage with Francois: “Time didn’t seem to dull their sex life. . . . Natalie didn’t understand the expression ‘Being in a relationship takes work.’ ”
One might be inclined to dislike Natalie ever so slightly, except that by Page 27 of this slim novel, a car has hit and killed Francois during his Sunday afternoon jog.
Natalie drags herself back to her marketing job a few months after his death, only to suffer the advances of her blundering boss, who “could write a book on the subject of Natalie’s knees” and who notices her face has been “purified by her tragedy.” He’s far from alone: Co-workers, strangers in bars, even heterosexual females are entranced by Natalie. Yet three years after Francois’s death, she remains numb.
The man who finally breaks through her shell is a surprise: a tall, awkward Swede named Markus, who, not surprisingly, becomes infatuated with her after she plants a kiss on him during the middle of the workday. “Natalie’s hair was wonderfully sleek. Of an astonishing beauty,” he notices. “In the face of such a capillary revelation, he felt at a loss for words.”
His inexperience with women serves him well during their courtship. Because he knows she’s out of his league, he walks out of a cafe during their second date, telling her their relationship can’t go anywhere. “Without realizing it, Markus had acted brilliantly. He’d reawakened Natalie. He’d pushed her into asking herself some questions.”
She’s intrigued, and soon they’re a couple. (Can’t you can hear the authors of “The Rules” shouting, “I told you so!”?)
Foenkinos, who also is a screenwriter, uses spare strokes to paint these chapters, which often run just two or three pages long. His bag of literary tricks includes whimsical lists and offbeat footnotes, one of which suggests that a director would cast Audrey Tautou to play Natalie’s character (prescient, since Tautou is now attached to the film adaptation of the novel, which is a bestseller in France.)
Foenkinos infuses the perfect amount of humor into this unorthodox love story to temper its tragedy. At times, his prose conjures up the comic neurosis of Woody Allen. During Natalie and Francois’s first date, for instance, Francois wonders what she’ll order to drink. He’s convinced that their entire future hinges on a beverage choice: If she orders tea, they’re doomed. “Just met, and already settling into some kind of dull cocoon. You feel like you’re going to end up spending Sunday afternoons watching TV. Or worse: at the in-laws’. Yes, tea is indisputably in-law territory.”
The novel isn’t flawless. Foenkinos provides a lot of praise for Natalie’s looks without much supporting information about her personality. A few quirks would have gone a long way toward making her seem three-dimensional. And her grief isn’t very palpable. We see her weeping on the street corner where her husband was hit, but the scene isn’t as affecting as it could be.
Still, this is a delicious chocolate truffle of romance.
Not that we Americans could eat just one.
By David Foenkinos
Translated from the French by Bruce Benderson
Harper Perennial. 250 pp. Paperback, $14.99