Home > 2000, 21st Century, French Literature, Novella, Olmi Véronique > Bleak hotel made me blue

Bleak hotel made me blue

Bord de mer by Véronique Olmi. 2001. English title: Beside The Sea. 

On avait pris le car, le dernier car du soir, pour que personne ne nous voie. Avant de partir les enfants avaient goûté, j’avais remarqué qu’ils ne finissaient pas le pot de confiture et j’ai pensé que cette confiture allait rester pour rien, c’était dommage, mais je leur avais appris à ne pas gâcher et à penser aux lendemains. We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day. (translated by Adrianna Hunter)

Right from the start you know something isn’t normal. Why doesn’t she want to be seen leaving town? Why does she care that there’s some jam left? Stunning paragraph. Those tiny details tip you off and you dread the worst.

Our narrator is a mother of two sons, Stanley (9) and Kevin (5). For a French reader, although Kevin has become a fairly common name, Stanley sounds very American. Only poorly educated social classes burden their children with American names coming from soaps or sitcoms. She takes her children to the seaside to show them the sea. It’s a school day, the weather is foul, the trip is unprepared. Something is off, as if she decided this on a whim. The journey quickly turns into a nightmare. The rain is pouring, the hotel is bleak, there isn’t enough money. She’s obviously very poor, why would she mind wasting jam? Her nest egg for the holidays is made of petty cash from the groceries and amounts to 52 FRF, 7,5€. Almost nothing, the kind of cash you give a kid for their allowance.

With small touches we learn more about this uncommon mother. She doesn’t know how to take care of her kids. She loves them but her psychological problems stand in the way. She’d like to be a common mother but she simply can’t. She’s totally unbalanced and her mental health is so wrecked that she’s often unable to get up, leaving the children unattended. She suffers from panic attacks in the stairwell of the hotel. She’s disoriented in the small seaside town, disoriented in her own life. She loves them dearly though and they love her back. However, she knows that their years of being inseparable are behind.

Il imite déjà les grands, j’ai pensé, et je me suis demandé combien de temps un enfant peut rester le fils de sa mère, à partir de quand il était méconnaissable, je veux dire, pareil aux autres. He’s already imitating grown-ups, I thought, and I wondered how long a child could go on being his mother’s son, exactly when he became unrecognizable, I mean: just like the others. (translated buy Adrianna Hunter)

Stan is nine and she knows he starts judging her, comparing her to other mothers. Both children go to school, have a life of their own outside the house, apart from her. She resents that Kevin likes his school mistress so much. She resents that Stan evades in books and observes her silently when she collapses in the kitchen table or stays in bed.

Véronique Olmi’s style is excellent, the mother has a moving voice and although she’s obviously a bad mother, it’s hard to judge her. She’d like to improve but she can’t. Neither the psychiatrist she sees nor the social worker who follows her are able to help her efficiently. I felt compassion for her and an awful lot of pity for the children.

When my first child was born, I grew a new self who includes an internal watchtower that makes me acutely aware of children in my surroundings. I started to notice and step in when a child was doing something dangerous. So reading about Stan and Kevin made me sad. Sad because the story is plausible. Sad because this mother doesn’t have the strength to overcome her problems. Sad that we, as a society, can’t help people like her. Sad because her children still love her the way children love their parents, unconditionally.

Bord de mer is located by the sea, I imagined the North coast, given that cold and that foul weather. I read this when I was on holiday by the Mediterranean sea. I did it on purpose because I knew it was difficult to read, emotionally, I wanted a quick escape from the book if needed. The weather was bright, azure sky, 30°C outside, 24°C in the water. My children were playing in the sea, totally carefree, mostly concerned by the flavour of their next ice-cream. Reading this novella in this décor was a mistake. The contrast between what I was reading and what I was living was even more violent. I know there are Stans and Kevins somewhere and I wish they could have as good a childhood as my own children. And I wondered how I could explain to my kids how lucky they are. Because in the end, all this is luck. A good health is luck. Escaping redundancies is luck as well.

Bord de mer has been abundantly reviewed in the English speaking blogosphere. Here are other reviews other than the ones already listed by Max. Reviews by Sarah, Tony, Stu

Max: a big thank you for providing in your post the English translation of the quotes I wanted to include. I was more than happy to discover them here.

  1. August 11, 2012 at 1:49 am

    I too read this book with a sense of mounting dread. As a teacher I have come across a few mothers like this, wanting to be better than they are but incapable of it. That bleak hotel atmosphere shows us something else as well, that communities have lost the sense of knowing when something is wrong and being willing and able to intervene.
    A fine review, thanks, Emma.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm

      I’ll link your review to mine too, I didn’t know you had read it too. (I should have guessed, though)
      I liked that Véronique Olmi doesn’t judge the mother but doesn’t try to find her excuses either. It’s factual and chilling.


  2. August 11, 2012 at 5:15 am

    Whatever else one can say about this book, it hits home, and that is a rarity and cause enough for promoting Olmi’s novel. One wants to hate this book and its subject matter, both delicate and shockingly violent; but it’s one of the few contemporary novels I’ve read that sticks. A book that has as an end result so many readers hugging their children, opening up in their love for their children, is act of courage.

    “She’d like to improve but she can’t.” Is that not the human condition for millions upon millions? I know that there are many novels that get close to this kind of psychological complexity and compassion, but this may well be a novel that could only have appeared in France. And although such national distinctions seem to matter less and less, I find myself respecting France all the more for the mere fact of this book’s existence.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      I totally agree with you, it’s a great piece of literature. You can’t remain indifferent. She found the right tone, she doesn’t judge the mother but doesn’t find her any excuse either.

      Why do you say it could only have appeared in France? Because it goes against the rosy idea that all mothers are good to their children? I guess it would not be a popular topic in the US where I feel there is a myth of the Family and pressure for women to stay at home and raise the kids.
      There’s another book like this one, but not as violent: La Virevolte by Nancy Huston.


      • August 14, 2012 at 11:09 pm

        Emma – My “only in France” comment was rather careless (and probably stems subconsciously from my missing France), but it did strike me, while reading Beside the Sea, that there was an extraordinarily delicate absence of sentimentality and sensationalism that seemed particularly difficult to pull off, and I considered for a moment how the novel might have been written in the U.S. – and whether or not it would have been picked up by a publisher here – and guessed that that delicacy would have been lost. Of course, this is pure speculation.


        • August 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

          I understand what you mean about the

          delicate absence of sentimentality and sensationalism

          This is why this book is so powerful: it feels real.

          PS: I’ll hope you’ll come back to France soon. Missing baguettes, croissants and ranting French people? 🙂


  3. August 11, 2012 at 8:29 am

    I grew up with a mother very similar to this one – in many ways even worse – that’s why I cannot really say much about it or would never have reviewed it. I read a few reviews in which people took the side of the mother and I could have slapped them. Despite my perosnal feelings, I thought she did an amazing job, I just cannot like it. Too close to home.
    Funny enough though I’ve already written a post on another Véronique Olmi title which I might publish tomorrow or Tuesday latest. Because – as the title says – there is more to her than Bord de mer. I’ll link to your review.


    • August 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      I looked for you review, didn’t find it and guessed why.
      You can’t take the side of the mother but however bad she is, she is still sick. Nobody can tell that they’ll never have a deep depression or a mental illness.
      What makes me sad is that the society doesn’t know well how to help these people, the mother on one side and the children on the other side.

      I’ll read another book from her. She’s talented, really. She dealt with a difficult topic in a fantastic way.


  4. August 11, 2012 at 5:17 pm

    I’ve read several reviews of this book, and for some reason I’ve built the rest of the story in my head so that I think I know how it ends. That’s an odd reaction for me. Does that mean it’s predicatable? or is it that I just think I know how it ends…


    • August 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm

      I thought I’d guessed the ending.
      Even if you think you know the ending, it’s worth reading. It’s well-written, well-constructed. A stunning piece of literature.


  5. leroyhunter
    August 13, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about the wrong setting for the book Emma: years ago I thought it would be a good idea to tackle Crime & Punishment in the middle of a Cretan summer. Let’s just say it was not a good idea.

    I thought this was an incredible piece of work by Olmi. I meant to look for more of her stuff in English, but am not sure there is any.


    • August 13, 2012 at 2:53 pm

      Hi Leroy,

      Reading it in this setting amplified the emotions. I expected bleak and difficult to bear, I got it. I know from the comments you left on Max’s blog that it affected you too.

      No other work by her in English? Isn’t it a sign that to resume reading in French?


      • leroyhunter
        August 13, 2012 at 3:47 pm



        • August 13, 2012 at 3:57 pm

          Pas coulé j’espère 🙂


  6. August 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    I thought this absolutely tremendous. If Peirene published nothing else in English this would justify them. I’ll be interested to see Caroline’s review of another Olmi. Hopefully that too will be translated.

    I’m glad my quotes were of use.

    It’s a tremendously difficult novel to read isn’t it? I felt compassion for the mother, but the book remains horrible, nauseating even. It’s unblinking, and that’s what allows it to contain both compassion and revulsion. Absolutely stunning stuff.


    • August 14, 2012 at 2:26 pm

      Yes, it’s difficult to read because it’s horrible. It’s probably even more difficult when you have young children.
      She’s a great writer, no doubt.


  7. August 14, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    Just found your blog via Max’s & wanted to say hello! Started reading this novella this week, it is fantastic. I’ll read your review more fully once I’ve finished it. Love that you’ve displayed the French alongside the English translation (I’m nowhere near able to read French any more but still).


    • August 15, 2012 at 2:19 pm

      Thank you for visiting and subscribing to my blog.
      I’m French and I always include quotes in both languages when I read a book in French: you’ll have more opportunities to refresh your French!


  8. August 27, 2012 at 1:30 am

    Nice review, Emma! I remember that at first I didn’t like the style (in the English translation) because of the long run-on sentences with separate thoughts all jumbled together. But it worked somehow in the end. And I loved the sense of claustrophobia throughout the book, and the realistic depiction of a despairing mother. Good to read about the original French version! Sometimes it’s hard to know how much of a writing style is the translator and how much is in the original.


    • August 27, 2012 at 6:55 am

      Thanks. Her style is excellent is French. We’re in her head, her voice is consistent with her social class.


  9. August 27, 2012 at 1:33 am

    By the way, a small point – the English translator was Adriana Hunter, not Anthea Bell.


    • August 27, 2012 at 6:51 am

      Thanks, I changed it.


  10. September 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Your review describes the book perfectly. This book captured the atmosphere of the Normandy coast perfectly and I had no difficulty picturing the hotel and the cold foggy town. I Possibly a little too miserable for my taste, but undoubtedly many people live like this and readers who ihhabit a more comfortable zone need to be reminded how fortunate they are.

    I apologise for my absence from the blogosphere in recent months. The I am now returning but with a sense of guilt for neglecting my book contacts.


    • September 18, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Hi Tom,

      How nice to have you back! I saw you posted a nw review, that’s great. So has the lit bloggosphere changed a bit during these last months?

      Back to Beside the Sea. For me, this book is not set in Normandy, which is a rich area for me. I associate it more with Stella Plage, Bray-Dunes, towns on the North Sea, near Lille, Dunkerque, Béthunes.


  1. August 24, 2012 at 4:35 pm
  2. September 11, 2012 at 10:40 pm
  3. December 27, 2012 at 12:18 am
  4. April 4, 2015 at 8:20 am
  5. December 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm

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