A Frenchwoman’s Midlife Sexual Awakening

PLAYBOY, by Constance Debré. Translated by Holly James.

The trilogy of autobiographical novels by the French writer Constance Debré could be described — reductively — as a challenging yet empowering coming-out journey, the story of a middle-aged woman who lost everything to find herself. But Debré has no interest in portraying life as a series of events in a familiar psychological progression. She is done with the kinds of books she read as a child, “stories of a world that lived in stories,” as she writes in “Playboy”— the first book in the trilogy and the second to be translated into English by Holly James. Turning our experiences into tidy stories “ends up warping our understanding of life and what we expect from it.” The point of literature, for Debré, is to force the reader into immediate, visceral reality.

Role play based on inherited expectations is precisely what Debré’s narrator, Constance, wants to avoid. She ends her long marriage to a man, abandons her career as a lawyer, begins having affairs with women and refuses to justify her choices even when she risks losing custody of her son.

When a child psychologist asks her if she loves her child, Constance cannot bring herself to speak because she knows this woman would never understand her definition of love: “I looked at her red Lancel bag and her Hermès watch with the double strap and told myself it wasn’t even worth answering.” At the heart of “Playboy” is controlled rage at the materialism so deeply entrenched in our society that it applies even to the way people use words, treating “love” and “sex” and “motherhood” like commodities, things that have value only insofar as they offer access to something else: cachet, financial stability, power.

Debré’s disgust with conventional social structures is often funny. Married life is “calm. Like a bomb shelter.” Other parents obsess about what tiles to put in their bathrooms and where to go on vacation, even though “they all go to the same places.” Besides, Constance thinks, “vacations are such a pain in the ass.”

For Constance, focusing on the body is the way out of this madness: “I swim and I don’t think of anything but the movements, my body extending stretching gliding.” The lack of punctuation, typical of Debré, pulls the reader into the motion with the urgency and immediacy of speech.

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