The Incorrigible Optimists Club – Jean-Michel Guenassia

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  • This book has had rave reviews across the internet, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out what it was all about.

    The story in a nutshell, is about Michel, a 12 year old, growing up in Paris during the late 50s, early 60s and how he mixes with a group of predominantly East European migrants who meet in the backroom of a local café. Here, he learns of their previous lives and of life behind the Iron Curtain. He also meets intellectuals Sartre and Kessel and learns about chess. Coupled with this we have his coming into young adulthood and his brother becoming involved in the French-Algerian war.

    The first thing that struck me about the book was its physical size. Over 600 pages! As I started reading, I found it a difficult book to get into. In fact, I had to re-start it several times in order to develop the interest to see it through. It might be because the book was a translated version from the original but it just didn’t gel with me.

    There were many characters, far too many in my opinion, to keep track of. It was easy to become confused and I was often flicking back to earlier pages in order to remind myself of previous events.

    Sadly, I also found myself regularly checking how many pages were left before I’d be finished, and I can’t remember the last time I did that with a book.

    It wasn’t all bad though. I found myself relating to the main character’s truancy and liking of the ‘forbidden’ territory of the café. I fully understood Michel’s liking of the older people and his wanting to hear their stories and of his trying to make sense of the world. His growing into adolescence resonated with me and brought back memories of my own young life.

    My understanding is that the author is a French screenwriter and that the book was the winner of the 2009 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens. (Whatever that is!) I can only say that those that voted for it must have very different tastes to me.

    Summing it all up, I feel that the book is a rather difficult middle of the road read, with pretentious intellectual overtones.

    Two anchors from me.

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