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A Very Long Engagement: A Novel Paperback – November 11, 2004


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 327 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (November 11, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312424582
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312424589
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 5.4 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (89 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #255,595 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

January 1917: five French soldiers are marched to their own front lines where they will be tossed out into no man's land with their hands tied behind their backs and left for the Germans to shoot. They were, in civilian life, variously a pimp, a mechanic, a farmer, a carpenter, and a fisherman; now they are condemned because each had sought to leave the war by shooting himself in the hand. Taken to a godforsaken trench nicknamed Bingo Crépuscule, the five are reluctantly sent out into the darkness; days later, five bodies are recovered and the families are notified, merely, that the men died in the line of duty.

August 1919: Mathilde Donnay receives a letter from a dying man. In it, the former soldier tells her that he met her beloved fiancé, the fisherman Manech, shortly before he died. Mathilde goes to meet Sergeant Daniel Esperanza at his hospital and there hears the story of the execution. She also receives a package with a photograph of the men and copies of their last letters. As Mathilde reads and rereads the letters and goes over Esperanza's tale, she begins to suspect that perhaps the story didn't end quite so neatly. And so begins her very long investigation into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of five condemned prisoners--one of whom, at least, might not really be dead.

In Mathilde Donnay, Sebastien Japrisot has created one of the most compelling and delightful heroines in modern fiction. Though confined to a wheelchair since childhood, "Mathilde has other lives, varied and quite beautiful ones." She paints, cares for her pets, enjoys a rich fantasy life, and is relentless in her search for the truth about Manech's death. But she is by no means the only vibrant personality leaping off Japrisot's pages. This author has a remarkable ability to draw even minor characters in three dimensions with economy and wit. Take Mathilde's mother, for instance, caught in mid-card game: "At bridge, manille, bezique, Mama is a dirty rotten swine. Not only is she an ace with the pasteboards, but she throws her opponents off their mettle by insulting or making fun of them." And even the characters we meet only through other people's memories--the condemned men--are so fully realized that you find yourself torn over which one you hope may have survived. 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

After a court martial in January 1917, five Frenchmen convicted of self-mutilation (in order to avoid combat in WW I) are dragged along the network of zigzagging trenches to the improbably named frontline trench, "Bingo Crepuscule." What exactly happened in Bingo is as labyrinthine as the trenches themselves, but Mathilde Donnay, the fiancee of one of the soldiers, is a determined young woman whose wheelchair is unable to contain her fiercely independent and willful spirit. Aided by an indulgent, well-to-do father, a generous private investigator, soldiers who survived the conflict and the families of those who didn't, Mathilde begins the long and spotty process of re-creating events. This 1991 Prix Interallie-winner is no linear mystery: over the course of several years, Mathilde must piece together redundancies, misremembered details and deliberately obscured clues, all further mangled by the chaos of war. Mathilde is not easy to love. If she is spunky and smart, she is also spoiled, making it sometimes hard to believe that so many people stumble over themselves to help her. Still, Japrisot's ( The Sleeping Car Murders ) eloquently easy, almost offhand style (nicely translated by Coverdale) makes even throwaway lines remarkable ("Fayolle actually spoke to him, saying a few unforgettable words he can't recall at the moment"), and his re-creation of the nobility, futility and horror of trench warfare is harshly beautiful.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This was a rare, intelligent, beautiful love story .
S.W. Miller
You will be trying to figure out what exactly happened during the entire reading, and then at the end will want to go back to put the pieces together.
W DC
The characters were beautifully drawn (though I had to make notes to keep them all straight) and the story is totally engaging and baffling.
S. Coyle

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 69 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 2, 1999
Format: Paperback
Wow! I just finished this book after reading it every spare minute for the last 2 days. I did not want to put it down. The beginning of this novel is probably the best introduction to a group of characters that I have ever read. Not only for its character development but for the rhythm of the language. A spectacular achievement considering this is translated from the original French.
This is a love story and an intriguing mystery as well as an indictment of the carnage of WWI. And in the midst of the climax of the story, the author gives further detail to a minor character (Mathilde's mother cancelling the cheese course) that had me laughing out loud. How did he know that I needed a break in the tension?
This is a well told story that had me enthralled from beginning to end, deepened my definition of love, taught me more about WWI (Pat Barker's trilogy is fabulous for this also, and just as fascinating) and caused me to appreciate again the privilege of reading great literature and all the benefits truly great books bring to life.
A must read.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on January 14, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A Very Long Engagement is a magical book, one which weaves a tale and catches you in its spell--it will haunt you long after you put it down. The novel begins as five condemned French soldiers walk to their doom during World War I. They have all shot themselves, trying to get out of fighting and as punishment, will be thrown into the no-man's-land between the French trenches and the German trenches. Their families know nothing of this and after they die, are told them men died honorably. A few years later, Mathilde, the fiance of one of the men discovers some of the truth about what happened and she becomes convinced that her fiance has did not die--or at least did not die as she was told. She tries, doggedly, to uncover the truth. Along the way, she discovers many atrocities of that war. The novel pulls you along to its rather unexpected, yet still deeply satisfying ending, pulls you so much you won't be able to put this one down. The power of love, the strength of friendship, the failure of memory--all these come into play in this outstanding novel. I highly recommend this novel to all devoted readers. It's a bit of a challenge, following all the little clues Matilde gets, putting the truth together and tossing out the lies, but it's worth it. Enjoy.
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21 of 24 people found the following review helpful By E. Gilliam on February 1, 2001
Format: Paperback
The plot, the characters, the story, these are all very good, and very compelling, but I can't help but be annoyed at the translation.
If you speak French, you can see right through lines that have been poorly translated too literally, and areas where too much liberty has been taken to get a particular point. At least, I hope this is the fault of the translator and the original is not this poorly done. My experience of French literature has been such that I can't imagine muddled phrases and incomplete lines would receive the resounding praise in France as is advertised on the book jacket.
Worst of all, I have found myself frequently reading the re-reading a sentence three or four times to discover in vain what the devil is going on.
In a description of Angel and another soldier's pact to shot each other in the hand (p.14): "At the last moment, because his entire being felt revulsion at the prospect of keeping his word, Angel had snatched his hand away from the mouth of the other man's gun and had closed his eyes. He'd pulled the trigger on his own gun, however. Now he was missing two joints from a ring finger and the tip of a middle finger, but the cootie-counting days of the other poor clod were over for good, as he'd taken Angel's blast full in the face, and the horses, desperate to escape this mess of human lunacy, had trampled the rest of him to a pulp."
First off, it sounds as if Angel pulls his hand away totally, but you find that's not so. Then, it makes you go back and re-read the passage a few more times, wondering, "Did Angel shoot this guy in the face? What am I missing?" My only conclusion is that the translator could have used different words, such as "full on in the hand.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Book Lover on April 18, 2005
Format: Paperback
I read this for my book club, and was surprised to find that so many women in my group could not get into this book! Some gave up after 5, 10 or even 50 pages. They were frustrated by what they saw as choppy translations and hard-to-remember French names. Those who did finish the book, like me, found it to be so rewarding! (Actually, I didn't have any difficulty getting into it from the get-go, but I do admit to making a cheat sheet to keep track of the characters' names and aliases.) The end is not cheesy, where many American writers and film makers would take this path. I did see it coming a bit, but it was still handled beautifully and with sincere emotion. I really liked how the author took a circular approach to this story, returning again and again to the same scene, each time with a new perspective or missing piece of the puzzle. Well worth the effort. I would definitely recommend reading this one.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Flapjack Molly on October 29, 1997
Format: Paperback
I read this book in one sitting. I couldn't put it down. Japrisot not only artfully held the suspense until the last possible moment, he gave me such wonderful characters to care about that I couldn't *help* but frantically turn the pages trying to find out Did Manech die or didn't he?? But it's not just a good mystery story. It's realistic historical fiction that gave me a vivid sense of the trenches and post-war life. It's a beautiful, painful romance story. It's a clever, astute rendering of how people help each other and lie to each other and care for each other and punish each other. All of this, brilliant at every facet, in one little book. It's a brilliantly *woven* story...like Mathilde, the heroine, you have to hold on tho the wire and don't let go until you get to the end as Japrisot winds you through his labyrinthine tale.
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