Couple Mechanics is the second novel from award-winning French writer, actress and screenwriter Nelly Alard. The book won the Prix Interallie when it was first published in France in 2013. Now, Adriana Hunter’s translation is poised to challenge Anglophone readers with the novel’s complex themes of love, betrayal, faith and doubt.
The story revolves around a middle-aged couple, Juliette, a computer engineer, and her journalist husband Olivier. They’ve been contentedly married for ten years and have two young children, when Olivier suddenly informs Juliette that he’s having an affair with another woman.
What is to be done? They decide to try to save their marriage, but it’s not so easy. He finds it difficult to extricate himself from the relationship; Juliette suspects he isn’t fully committed to doing so. She’s torn between the growing resentment she feels toward her husband, the hurt she feels over the pain and cruelty he’s causing her, and her own stubborn determination to save the marriage and achieve a victory of sorts by convincing him to leave the other woman (who is ironically named Victoire, but whom Juliette refuses to refer to as anything other than ‘V’).
Love and Resilience? Or Abuse and Manipulation?
Reviewers describe the book as “a story of love and resilience”; a study “about the natures of passion and marriage”; an “exploration of a modern couple in crisis”. The text on the flap states that it’s about “the system of forces at work in a marriage” and, perplexingly, “the difficulty of being a man in today’s world”.
Alard’s smart, nuanced writing leaves much of the characters’ morality open to the reader to interpret. Reviewer descriptions of “a couple in crisis”, like those cited above, suggest there’s blame and responsibility to be had by both sides of the couple. But there’s another interpretation of what’s going on in this story, so let me put it more bluntly: Olivier is a manipulative, emotionally and psychologically abusive, misogynistic man.
Alard doesn’t describe Olivier in such blunt and overt terms. Indeed, the genius of Alard’s psychological portrayal of the characters is such that the multiple readings of Olivier’s character reflect the multiple readings such men receive in today’s society. Many emotionally violent and abusive men do manage to hold down marriages, carry on affairs, and preserve their marriages in spite of it, and even maintain the respect of their friends and professional colleagues while doing so.
Many of them — far too many of them — live happily ever after.
But it does not mean that they’re not manipulative, violent and abusive. The phenomenon of the faux-feminist man — or faux-minist as it is sometimes wittily referred to — has been interrogated for some time in feminist discourse, but rarely has it been depicted with such precision in fiction. (For some discussion of the non-fiction variety, check out Kate Iselin’s article, “Why I won’t date another ‘male feminist’, Heather Laine Talley’s “Faux Feminist Men and Other Figments (Real and Imagined)” or Nicole George’s “Ms Opinionated: How Do I Deal With a Fake Feminist Dude?“
Olivier is the perfect depiction of the subtly manipulative ‘new feminist man’; his behaviour a stark portrayal of the new face of misogyny perpetrated by such men. Juliette, a feminist activist in her younger years, reflects with one of her friends how “both of their husbands came pretty close to the masculine ideal they’d dreamed up some 20 years earlier. Like the other men in their tight-knit group, they were actually almost perfect specimens of the new father species. They changed diapers, made up bottles, and met each other along the banks of the river on Sundays, carrying their babies on their backs or in pouches or comparing the suspension of their brand-new strollers…”
Indeed, reflects Juliette, it was following the birth of their daughter that the couple’s marital problems began: she found herself jealous of the attention Olivier fostered on her daughter, and — particularly when she had to give up breastfeeding to return to work — felt forcibly separated from her daughter with all the attention her husband foisted on the infant.
Juliette struggled with how to respond to her feelings, but the reader can take a more critical read of Olivier: here’s the clearest indication yet of his misogynistic narcissism. He’s not so much interested in being a good father, in being a feminist man, in being a sincere partner, but he’s interested in maintaining the image of it. His image as the perfect father matters more to him than the integrity of his new familial relationship; more than Juliette’s feelings and more than maintaining an equitable balance in their now three-way relationship.
Indeed, Olivier is the prototypical faux-feminist man: deadly concerned with maintaining the image of an ideal feminist, but completely ignorant of the abusive impact his actions have on the women around him, whether as a father or an adulterer. When the women complain, or object, he uses his feminist capital to brush off their awkward concerns and make them doubt their own perceptions of what’s going on.
This, of course, becomes a pattern. Privately, Olivier thrives on the image of masculine martyrdom the affair provides him: lured by a younger woman, yet struggling to resist in the name of ‘responsibility’ and of saving his marriage and family. Each time he slips up and meets with V he frames it as an effort to protect her ‘fragile’ mental state (for which we have mostly only his word, and the word of V’s other male friend) while trying to gently extricate himself from the affair. He doesn’t simply cut it off; he doesn’t commit (until the end) with either of the women he’s involved with; he merely revels in middle-aged masculine angst, caught between responsibility and desire.
Time and again Juliette struggles to connect with him on an emotional level about the affair and their relationship; time and again he responds to her with brusque and cold logic — of course he doesn’t want to leave her, he’s invested more in their ten-year marriage than a six-week affair, he thinks they can have many more years of happiness — but all too rarely with love and passion. Meanwhile, he flashes a smug half-embarrassed, half-proud smile to their mutual friends when they learn about his affair, and pats himself on the back for struggling to keep together his marriage.
At the same time, it’s the women around him, his lover V, his wife Juliette, who suffer miserably while he proudly enjoys the affirmation that he’s both sexually desirable to a younger woman and also morally superior enough to toss her off after a few weeks and return to his wife. When Juliette questions his behavior — why, after weeks of claiming he wants to break off the affair, is he still replying to the woman’s text messages on a regular basis? — he responds aggressively and charges her with being unreasonable. It’s only in the instances where Juliette is clearly on the verge of giving up trying, and about to write off their relationship as hopeless, that he realizes the dangerous brink he’s on and quickly acquiesces to her demands, thus reinforcing her own self-doubt as to whether indeed she’s the one being unreasonable.
Olivier is a master of misogynistic psychological abuse par excellence — so much so that he doesn’t even seem to realize it. He seems most attracted to Juliette when he fears that she’s going to leave him (an attitude which he also seems to portray toward V in the early part of the story); when their sex life eventually improves (due largely to Juliette’s determination to rekindle it) he audaciously congratulates the affair as having brought them closer together. Even when he expresses his commitment to Juliette, he remains unapologetic about the affair — it was something he needed to do, and didn’t it strengthen them in the end, anyway?
Juliette, meanwhile, struggles between satisfaction that she’s rekindled their sex life, and the horrible feeling that she is being controlled and manipulated into doing so by a husband who remains as emotionally distant as ever.
Olivier, in short, comes across as precisely the superficial image-obsessed, immature adventure-seeker that so many faux feminist men turn out to be. This may not have been Alard’s intention (but like any good piece of literature, the novel takes on a life of its own), and may owe something to the translation as well: the original French publication featured three chapters written from Olivier’s perspective, a technique that was omitted from the English edition (where the entire book is recounted from Juliette’s perspective).
Indeed, Alard has in interviews and in the novel itself highlighted other lessons: that marriage is not just about love but about active will; and that Juliette, although a feminist, does not react to the affair as a feminist, but as a woman acting “…out of her sense of survival. She tries to protect what’s most important to her: her life, her love, her kids — and she doesn’t care whether her actions are “feministically correct”… The bottom line being that the purpose of feminism, I think, is to give women the right and freedom to make their own choices, and not be judged for it.”
Alard’s portrayal of Juliette is sensitive, nuanced, and remarkably deep. Juliette goes through all the emotions, alternating between self-doubt — Is she deluding herself? Is she allowing her husband to get away with manipulating her? — and a determination to maintain their marriage which she herself recognizes is the product of stubbornness, pride, fear, and confusion all at once. Alard’s message is clear, particularly at the end: don’t judge Juliette. Juliette rejects the judgement of strangers who don’t understand why she acts the way she does through the whole affair: “For in the same way people have a very clear idea of how women who’ve been raped behave, she thought, they also have a very clear idea of how a betrayed women should behave, what she can and can’t put up with, what she should and shouldn’t accept, and in the name of women’s dignity and integrity, the consensus was that it was their duty to be intransigent, that they were required to choose glorious solitude over flawed love.”
Nor does Alard condemn Olivier outright. She presents him with all his flaws, and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Is he simply a flawed man struggling to do the right thing? Or an abusive misogynistic narcissist? If the reader finds themselves torn on the question, they start to realize what women like Juliette must feel like.
Feminist themes paint the backdrop of the novel, as they do our society: the France depicted in Couple Mechanics is wracked by debates over secularism versus the Islamic veil; domestic abuse grips the headlines. Juliette’s own background is profoundly affected by a painful abortion experience and a violent, deeply triggering rape scene recounted early in the story.
Simone de Beauvoir’s 1967 novel, The Woman Destroyed, also featuring a character whose husband has an affair, crops up repeatedly, and not coincidentally. “I wanted to rewrite The Woman Destroyed, by Simone de Beauvoir, some fifty years later, after feminism has drastically changed the relationships between men and women, and see how this story would unfold in a modern couple, with new forces in balance,” Alard told Christie Michel in an interview earlier this year.
The story’s backdrop is compelling and refreshingly modern. Strikes and protests flare in the streets; offices struggle to implement anti-sexual harassment policies. But it’s the depiction of the couple’s mechanics — the daily exchanges, the internal doubts, the complicated airing of grievances, Olivier’s excuses to Juliette for his actions and Juliette’s excuses to herself over how she responds — which is truly remarkable. Alard fences with language and dialogue like a true master. The dialogue and drama is perfectly paced; the plot twists absorbing. It’s hard to imagine how a 300 page book about a couple struggling to save their marriage could be appealing; but Alard has turned it into an absorbing, suspenseful drama that’s nearly impossible to put down. Couple Mechanics is one of the finest masterpieces of feminist fiction the 21st century has yet produced.