“Once upon a time, there were five French soldiers who had gone off to war, because that’s the way of the world.
The first soldier, who in his youth had been a cheerful, adventurous lad, wore around his neck an identification tag marked 2124, the number assigned to him at a recruiting office in the department of Seine. On his feet were boots taken from a dead German, boots that sank into the mud trench after trench as he plodded through the godforsaken maze leading to the front lines…”
Five wounded French soldiers are reported “killed in the line of duty,” however; things are not quite what they seem. A no man’s land between the French and German armies, a mystery, a cover up, an irrepressible girl, a lost boy, a fearless “Eskimo,” humor, joy, love, heartbreak… believe me when I say, this novel has something for everyone. I began and ended this lovely book on the same day. The iron-willed, prickly Mathilde Donnay (along with Scarlett O’Hara) is one of my all-time favorite literary heroines.
From the Publisher
Set during and after the First World War,A Very Long Engagement tells the story of a young woman’s search for her fiancé, whom she believes might still be alive despite having officially been reported as “killed in the line of duty.” Unable to walk since childhood, fearless Mathilde Donnay is undeterred in her quest as she scours the country for information about five wounded French soldiers who were brutally abandoned by their own troops. A Very Long Engagement is a mystery, a love story, and an extraordinary portrait of life in France before and after the War. Picador
Book Club Ideas for A Very Long Engagement
Mathilde ranks as one of my all-time favorite literary heroines!
Mathilde is a talented artist who “paints a great deal, to forget sad things.” Mathilde paints large canvases of flowers, and grows roses, rhododendrons, and camellias at the Villa MMM. However, when choosing a flower for decoration, my first choice is the sunflower, which holds much significance for Mathilde.
I have a very old black box which holds my own family’s World War I keepsakes, and I set this out to represent Mathilde’s mahogany box.
Book Club Menu for A Very Long Engagement
Manech and Mathilde met as children and fell in love in Capbreton, in the Landes department of Aquitane in southwest France. I wasn’t very familiar with Capbreton or the Landes department of France, but I did hope to get a Landes menu together. Luckily, I found two amazing cookbooks featuring regional foods in France and used recipes from each for my Landes menu. The thought of preparing French food can be quite intimidating, but the country recipes in both these cookbooks are easy to follow and not at all difficult. If you love cookbooks, want to broaden your cooking experience, or just prepare a fabulous meal, I recommend both The Cooking of Southwest France : Recipes from France’s Magnificent Rustic Cuisine by Paula Wolfert , and The Country Cooking of France by Anne Willan.
Book Club Resources
- “A kind of latter-day War and Peace…This is a book that is many things: a war story, a story of official corruption, an idyll of young summer love, and a rich and most original panorama of French men and women living in peace and robbed of it. Finally, giving it all an intent energy, it is a hybrid of the detective story and the classical quest.” — Richard Eder, Los Angeles Book Review
- “A classic mystery….Only the best historical fiction can make the journey into a distant time and return with a believable sense of how things really were. This novel does it.” — Paul Watkins, Washington Post Book World
- “As Mathilde comes ever closer to solving the mystery of what happened at Bingo Crépuscule that January morning in 1917, Sebastien Japrisot proves himself a master storyteller and A Very Long Engagement a near perfect novel.” — Alix Wilber, Amazon.com Editorial Review
- “Diabolically clever…the reader is alternately impressed, beguiled, frightened, bewildered….A considerable achievement.” — Anita Brookner, The Spectator
- “Riveting….A fierce, elliptical novel that’s both a gripping psychological thriller and highly moving meditation on the emotional consequence of war.”— Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Discussion Questions for A Very Long Engagement
- What does the mahagony box represent for Mathilde?
- Discuss the interesting contrasts and similarities between Mathilde and Tina.
- What type of relationship develops between Mathilde and Célestin Poux?
- When Mathilde and Manech first meet as children he says to her “You can’t walk?” What is the reader’s reaction when Manech says these words to Mathilde again?
- What information does the final chapter Monday Morning give the reader?
The Author and Awards
The French author Sebastien Japrisot, (July 4, 1931 – March 4, 2003) penned seven novels. His pen name, Sebastien Japrisot, is actually an anagram of his real name Jean-Baptiste Rossi. He was also a screen writer and a director.