The Beginners


Reviewed by Sarah Murph

The Beginners by Anne Serre, Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson, Cambridge, MA: New Directions Publishing, 2021, 128 pages, $11.60

Right person, wrong time? Or maybe star-crossed love. Forbidden love may also be an adequate description of what we get from this tale of the passion and complex pain that follows a love triangle. Anne Serre’s The Beginners: a story of your typical, yet not-so-typical, romance tale that embodies cliches, but keeps the audience engaged with the trials that come along with these commonly used, but not commonly experienced terms. Serre’s writing is detailed and entertaining, and by going into deep detail about the feelings of the protagonist, we are able to conclude more about her psyche and thoughts while making decisions. Through engaging with the main character Anna Lore’s internal conflict, we are given the story of a woman who, like many of us, does not know what she wants.

The protagonist of this novel is a 43-year-old woman named Anna Lore who, despite her love interest of twenty years, Guillaume Ruys, falls in love with the man who she pictured all her life when she pictured love: Thomas. Anna is a writer, and through this novel, we can infer that her emotions are that of someone who is deeply creative and troubled by her complex thoughts. Anne Serre’s intention in this deep, psychological character development is a gleaming piece of this novel and could also be pertinent to her life as a writer. She embodies the persona of a lost woman: relaying her emotions to everyone (even her doctor and hairdresser) but the people who deserve to hear it. The narrative of a woman being in a position to control her own life is a key part of this story. She holds the power with who she shares her time and love, and this liberty makes her question who and what she really wants. By setting both of the male characters in direct contrast with one another, Serre highlights the pain of the internal struggle that comes along with decision-making regarding relationships.

Through Anna’s interactions and feelings toward both men, the reader is able to glean more about the different types of love and how they can shift your focus in different ways. The author goes into detail about how Anna and Guillaume’s love had morphed into something that was only present when they were doing things that they used to do: reminded of their past and who they used to be, and from this, a nostalgic action served as an escape from reality. Throughout the novel, she uses allusions to different characters and historical figures as a means to express her feelings toward Thomas, but never for Guillaume. As the reader, this expresses her distaste for his mundanity and showed that since Thomas embodied all things new and fresh, in contrast to Guillaume, she had to make assumptions about who he was. This called for her almost creating the ideal man in her mind. This novel brings forward a new idea of not the heart being in control, but more so desire. She could name a million reasons why she should love Guillaume, but at the end of the day, the idea of Thomas continued to linger in her mind.

Anne Serre’s style of strictly writing chronologically creates suspense in the novel, which adds to the slow-burn aspect of how her romantic relationships in the novel unfold. Through each division of the novel, while mainly focusing on Anna, the focus is shifted to each character. This gives the storyline dimension and allows the reader to take each character what they know about each character to survey how they feel about the conflict at hand. Serre’s method of writing romance in a complex way proves that she is no stranger to the genre because of her unique way of describing love. She paints the picture of passion and love in an almost dissociative, Nihilistic way. By treating passion as an out-of-body experience, actions seem to not have consequences, and we see an example of this in this novel. But on the other hand, Serre introduces the narrative of opening up to emotion and embracing it in whatever it may bring. With this appreciation of an existentialistic viewpoint of life, the option of accepting passion and emotion in a way that embraces free will is up for the taking.

While The Beginners is a romance novel, Serre finds a way to add a philosophical dissection of emotion and how we perceive emotion in our lives regarding relationships and love. This novel dives deeply into the meaning of secrecy as we perceive it: what makes up a secret and how does every individual perceive a secret? If there is no emotion shared while telling a secret, then the meaning of a secret gets lost in translation: it is merely just words that are passed along. While I found this to be a complex idea, this discussion opens up a narrative about human interaction in regard to emotion. Her detailed explanation of a woman’s emotions concerning love, loyalty, and relationships while questioning love and intentions is a piece of this story that not only pulls the reader in but makes them want to keep reading.