I adored this book. The cover says "A novel of love between the wars" (which is a siren song to me), but this was so much more than that.
Pierre Hardelot breaks his engagement to the rich Simone to marry the girl he loves, sweet but poor Agnes. This domestic scandal -- an old established family bitterly divided by an unsuitable marriage -- is seemingly eclipsed as the world slips into war in 1914. Pierre survives and returns home to his beloved wife and son, but in time, the whole cycle starts all over again: The Hardelots' son, Guy, falls in love with Simone's daughter, Rose, then Hitler throws a spanner and the world goes mad again.
The ordered and happy lives the characters fought to arrange fall victim to chance: people fall in and out of love, the economy collapses, the march towards the future renders the family business obsolete, a man dies in a car accident with a woman who is not his wife, and France enters two wars. Irene Nemirovsky writes beautifully on a global scale, whether she is describing the jittery anxiety of a country on the brink of war; the panic and drudgery of a town fleeing the invading Germans; the irrational yet unshakeable intuition that you and your loved ones will emerge unscathed; or even young people's firm belief that they are the first to invent love. Still, this novel reminds us that family tragedies and personal heartache still matter enormously, even when the world is at war, and the ramifications of impulsive decisions and random events trickle down to the next generation. The characters ponder an eternal question: What's worth fighting for-- in life and in war -- in a world that we can't control and that continues to change in ways we can't understand or even conceive? "All this, in spite of what you might think, is what is truly important. The war will end, we will all disappear, but these humble and innocent gifts will remain: the cool air, the sun, a red apple, a fire in winter, a woman, children, the life we lead each day...The crash and din of war all fade away. The rest endures...but will it endure for me, or for others?"
Despite fate's uncontrollable hand continually upsetting and unbalancing the lives of its characters, the book maintains an optimistic note, which, as pointed out by the translator's note, is particularly poignant when read as companion to the unfinished Suite Francaise.