Pierre and Agnes marry for love against the wishes of his parents and the family patriarch, the tyrannical industrialist Julien Hardelot, provoking a family feud which cascades down the generations. This is Balzac or The Forsyte Saga on a smaller, more intimate scale, the bourgeoisie observed close-up, with Némirovsky’s characteristically sly humour and clear-eyed compassion. Full of drama and heartbreak, and telling observations of the devastating effects of two wars on a small town and an industrial family, Némirovsky is at the height of her powers.
Taut, evocative and beautifully paced, the novel points out with heartbreaking detail and clarity how close those two wars were, how history repeated itself, tragically and shockingly. The story opens in the Edwardian era, on a fashionable Normandy beach and ends with a changed world under Nazi occupation.
Irène Némirovsky’s story is as amazing as any of her writing. Born in Kiev, she moved with her family to France where she became a successful novelist. In World War II, she ended up in Auschwitz and died there in 1942.
Knowing all that Némirovsky endured in her lifetime puts a slightly different perspective on her novels themselves. Perhaps it shouldn’t. Perhaps the story is all that should matter. Nevertheless, if we were all honest with each other, everything from what others have said about a book to the very cover itself affects how you perceive a novel.
In All Our Worldly Goods, the story feels all the more real knowing the author’s first-hand experience enduring so many wars. The love story between Pierre and Agnes is genuine, sweet and practical. While the novel is more of a family saga than a love story, there are tender moments and peaceful moments that reminds you to cherish such times.
Though Némirovsky’s style is a bit distant and succinct, I enjoyed her pacing and use of scenes to show the true heart of a character. With a large cast of characters that sweeps over several generations, it is easy to get them mixed up, but Némirovsky paints them clearly and by the end, weaves everything together masterfully.
I recommend this novel for anyone who enjoys historical fiction and is looking for a fresh perspective on the war – the homefront of those in the invaded countries. There aren’t any battle scenes, but the turmoil at home is as clear and real as ever.