The Martins: A Novel

  • By David Foenkinos; translated by Sam Taylor
  • Gallic Books
  • 256 pp.

This witty work of autofiction proves you don’t always need a plot.

The Martins: A Novel

I normally associate the term “page-turner” with plot. Action. Adventure. Beach reads full of tangled loyalties and tawdry relationships. Yet somehow, in The Martins, David Foenkinos has turned a reflection on the relationship between reality and fiction into an absolute page-turner.

Foenkinos, a French author of 17 previous novels and winner of the Prix Renaudot, opens the story with the confession of his narrator (and alter ego) that he has become bored with his own imagination. Having always relied on his ability to make up characters and plots, he decides to get past his current block by writing about reality. He challenges himself to go outside and make the first person he sees the subject of his as-yet-unwritten novel.

Whatever their life story is, it will become his next book.

Thus, we are introduced to the Martins — the extended family of Madeleine Tricot, an elderly woman who lives in the narrator’s Parisian neighborhood and is out shopping on the day he enacts his plan. While we learn a great deal about Madeleine, her daughter Valérie, son-in-law Patrick, and two grandchildren, Jérémie and Lola, the novel focuses more on the narrator’s sudden, intense relationship with this family, how he feels about each detail of their lives, and his constant worry over how it all will work as a book.

The Martins are unexceptional. Madeleine lives alone and dwells on her past. Valérie is a teacher trudging toward burnout, and Patrick fears he is on the cusp of being fired from a job he hates anyway. Their marriage has become passionless and routine. Their son is having trouble at school, and their daughter has withdrawn from the family and begun thinking about dating and boys.

After very little hesitation, the Martins agree to be the subject of his project, and the narrator is thrilled to have “characters prepared to take charge of the story.” The Martins, something of a parody of autofiction, proceeds to blur the lines between narrator and character, fiction and autobiography.

The narrator begins to notice that “any person you put in a book will start acting like a character.” First, Valérie declares she will leave Patrick. Then Patrick pledges his love and promises to make the marriage work again. The narrator senses these dramatic declarations are aimed at livening up his book rather than managing their real lives but is thankful for the plot development regardless.

Jérémie, the practical younger child, simply asks the narrator for help with his homework, but Lola, initially reluctant to take part in the project, recruits the narrator to talk to her boyfriend about his intentions, forcing the writer to put his thumb on the scale before putting words on the page. Most dramatically, the narrator gets in touch with Yves, Madeleine’s long-lost lover, and makes plans to travel with her to Los Angeles for their reunion.

It becomes clear that the Martins affect the narrator, too. He tells us that he normally eschews autobiography but now feels he must answer the many questions the family asks about him. Much of what we learn centers on the narrator’s recent breakup with Marie; we learn what her loss has meant to him at the same time he realizes it. As Lola contemplates losing her virginity, Valérie and Patrick argue about the future of their marriage, and Madeleine departs to find Yves, the narrator decides to reconnect with his own lost love.

If all this seems dramatic, I have told it wrong. The drive in this novel comes not from the plot but from the narrator’s struggles with it. The way he must “submit to the will” of his characters, who sometimes defy him and “act deliberately.” He thinks about the difference between telling a story and making a story happen. He wonders if he has become too involved or not involved enough. He fears he is manipulating his characters and that they are manipulating him. Along the way, he tries to draw lessons from other art — Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, Francois Truffaut’s “The Last Metro,” Foenkinos’ own earlier novels, and the work of Yoko Ono.

All of this is told in straightforward, clean prose translated by Sam Taylor, himself an award-winning British novelist, so that nothing fancy distracts from the simple narration of events. There is a sly sense of humor throughout, as when the narrator relieves boredom by recounting incidents from the life of designer Karl Lagerfeld. The short chapters — some just a paragraph long — convey the complexity of Foenkinos’ ideas without ever making them seem complex.

If there is a weakness in the book, it is ascribable to life as much as literature. Our true stories rarely line up for satisfying endings the way great fiction does, and the action here stops with none of the storylines fully resolved. Some take surprising and funny turns, while others feel arbitrarily cut off or barely started.

However, I was not disappointed. I could see the kinds of future challenges the characters will face, understand how they might face them, and sense how their outlook has been affected by being the subject, for a time, of fiction. Many novels give me something to think about only until I start the next one. With The Martins, David Foenkinos has created a work I’ll continue pondering long after I’ve picked up another book. That’s action and adventure enough to keep the pages turning.

John P. Loonam has a Ph.D. in American literature from the City University of New York and taught English in New York City public schools for over 35 years. He has published fiction in various journals and anthologies, and his short plays have been featured by the Mottola Theater Project several times. He is married and the father of two sons; the four have lived in Brooklyn long enough to be considered natives by anyone but his neighbors.

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