He said nothing more: he was at a loss for words. But he was thinking, ‘All this in spite of what you might think, is what is truly important. The war will end, we will all disappear, but these humble and innocent gifts will remain: the cool air, the sun, a red apple, a fire in winter, a woman, children, the life we lead each day…The crash and din of war all fade away. The rest endures…But will it endure for me, or for others?’ – from All Our Worldly Goods, page 85 –
The Hardelots live in the small French village of Saint-Elme where they own a large paper mill. The Florents also live in Saint-Elme, right next door to the Hardelots, but they are “brewers” and of a lower social class. So although the two families interact politely, it is clear they are separate and not the same. In the early part of the the twentieth century, these two families will create a scandal when Pierre Hardelot refuses to marry the woman who has been chosen for him and instead marries the woman he loves: Agnes Florent. In doing so, Pierre goes against the wishes of his parents and his tyrannical grandfather and loses his job at the family factory. Meanwhile, Simone (Pierre’s former fiance) finds herself left behind without a husband.
Irene Nemirovsky’s sweeping novel begins in 1910 and moves through the unsettled years of WWI and WWII. Pierre and Agnes find themselves pulled between the village in which they grew up, and the bustling streets of Paris as WWI descends upon France and sweeps Pierre onto the battlefield.
It was the very beginning of the war, when the heart bleeds for everyone who dies, when tears are shed for each man sent to fight. Sadly, as time goes on, people get used to it all. They think only of one soldier, theirs. But at the start of a war the heart is still tender; it hasn’t hardened yet. – from All Our Worldly Goods, page 55 –
Nemirovsky explores the themes of social class, family feuds, war, and the enduring power of love. Her prose is poignant and creates a character study of two families over several decades. She succinctly captures the fault line between the bourgeoisie and the lower middle classes in early twentieth century France.
Beyond this street lived a few families not related to the Hardelots, but no one paid any attention to them; it was almost as if they didn’t exist. It was like horses and cows, who can live side by side in the same field for their entire lives without seeming to notice each other. – from All Our Worldly Goods, page 23 –
All Our Worldly Goods is aptly titled. Nemirovsky demonstrates the struggle between love of property and the pull of family. Pierre finds himself shunned by his wealthy family when he chooses love over the interests of the family business and yet he is happy in spite of it all. His former fiance, Simone, on the other hand, gains wealth but finds her emotional life in tatters.
The Hardelots had lived for this factory. They had married ugly women; they had skimped and counted every last penny; they had been rich and had enjoyed fewer pleasures than the poor. They had stifled their children’s interests, thwarted their loves. All this for the factory, for their possessions, for something that was, to their eyes, more durable and faithful than love, women or their own children. – from All Our Worldly Goods, page 168 –
The novel is not without its faults. By choosing to cover such a large period of time in less than 300 pages, Nemirovsky’s prose sometimes feels rushed. The reader is catapulted through time through the birth of several babies who grow into adults and through two world wars. There were moments I longed for Nemirovsky to pause and give me time to catch up with the characters before they moved on to the next phase of their lives.
One of the fascinating aspects of this novel has less to do with the story, and more to do with the author. Irene Nemirovsky wrote this book as history was unfolding. The novel was not published until 1947, five years after she was murdered by the Nazis. I found myself wondering how much of the author’s own history was wrapped up in the fiction of her book. I think it takes courage, along with amazing insight, to craft a book set during the author’s own time. And because of this, I found the book to be more heart-wrenching. When Irene Nemirovsky writes about the uncertainty of Pierre and Agnes’ lives, she is also writing about the uncertainty of her own life.
Readers who have read previous novels by this author will find similarities in style and theme. I have read Suite Francaise (read my review) and Fire in the Blood (read my review), both of which I enjoyed. I recommend All Our Worldly Goods to readers of historical fiction and those who enjoy translated literature (this novel was translated from the French by Sandra Smith).