Welcome back, bookworms. Today on the Weekly Word: home to all things literary at Rhode Island College, we will be discussing All Our Worldly Goods by Irene Nemirosvky. All Our Worldly Goods calls itself “A novel of love between the wars,” but its plot is far more complex.
Set in the small French town of Saint-Elme, the novel follows the lives of its intertwined inhabitants from 1910 to 1940. Readers are first introduced to Pierre Hardelot and Agnes Floret in 1910. Star-crossed lovers, the pair fights desperately to be together, although their families staunchly oppose the union. The Hardelots have managed to maintain their wealth and factory betrothing their sons to wealthy young women with hefty dowries. Agnes, as a lower-middle class daughter of a widow, is not only financially, but socially unacceptable as a choice. Their determination to marry, and ramifications of that choice, is the center of the novel.
Each chapter catapults the reader into the future, sometimes a few months, other times several years. The reader merely sees glimpses of each character’s lives; although the novel invests most heavily in Agnes and Pierre, it also delves into the lives of those connected to the couple. Among the characters observed is Pierre’s ex-finance, who remains fiercely jealous of Agnes, years after her engagement has been broken off. This style of narrative may leave the reader feeling a disconnect between themselves and the characters. For example, while Agnes and Pierre’s love is evident, it is rarely touched upon.
At times, the book throws readers into a compelling moment, only to skip forward three years in the future, with no account of the time in between. Although this leaves some loose ends, it highlights the character of the town of Saint-Elme. In a town where appearance is everything, the characters in the novel spend a great deal of their time gossiping, and watching their neighbors. Therefore, through these jumps from chapter to chapter, the reader can play one of the town’s busy-bodies, collecting and piecing together the lives of each main character.
Where the novel truly shines is in its encapsulation of the war. Nemirovsky flawlessly writes about the emotions and thought process of France throughout the novel. This is not a book for those eager to read about life on the battlefield: instead, it discusses the fear plaguing those still at home dealing with the lack of resources, the fear, and the pain of having to leave behind one’s memories. By having the novel span the course of both wars, Nemirovsky is able to draw interesting parallels between the mindset of those at war. While the circumstances are notably different, Nemirovsky seems to make a statement that all wars are the same. They cause a similar fear and destruction, but they all end. She flawlessly writes to conclude the last seventy pages of the book and makes up for any lulls in plot within the middle.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the novel is the author’s optimistic writing. The novel concludes before World War II’s end, yet it has a strong sense of hope. The novel, first published in 1947, was not discovered until five years after Nemirovsky was murdered in Auschwitz. Her own unfitting end makes the novel that much more beautiful and tragic.
Although readers may not be interested in the gossip and romance that is spread throughout the novel, I recommend reading the novel solely for Nemirovsky’s strong grasp on the psychology of war. The author is at her most brilliant when describing the mindset of soldiers and civilians and in showing the similarities of both generations forced into combat.