Crush by Frédéric Dard, translated by Daniel Seton

Book Details

Originally published in 1959 as Les scélérats
English translation published in 2016

The Blurb

Seventeen-year-old Louise Lacroix is desperate to escape her dreary life. So on her way home from work every evening she takes a detour past the enchanting house of Jess and Thelma Rooland – a wealthy and glamorous American couple – where the sun always seems to shine.

When Louise convinces the Roolands to employ her as their maid, she thinks she’s in heaven. But soon their seemingly perfect life begins to unravel. What terrible secrets are they hiding?

Dripping with tension and yearning, Crush is a chilling Fifties suspense story of youthful naivety, dark obsession – and the slippery slope to murder.

The Verdict

Featuring strong and surprisingly nuanced characters, Crush is a punchy and powerful read that I recommend as a starting point with the writer.

People are always saying you should grow to love the town you’re brought up in, but you can tell that’s not the case for me. I’ve always hated Léopoldville, probably because I always saw it as it really was: artificial and sad.

My Thoughts

I have been hoarding my last few Dard works in translation, being all too aware that I will soon run out of them unless one of two things happens. Either Pushkin release some more translations or I need to learn to read French. The latter seems unlikely given four years of secondary school tuition failed to get me anywhere so let me start this review with a plea that someone get to work to translate them. There are hundreds to choose from and I’ll lay down money for any of them.

The reason I felt a strong need to get that plea out there is that of the four works by Dard I have read, this is easily my favorite and that includes a work I nominated as a reprint of the year a few years back. I was seriously impressed, devouring this in a single sitting.

The story is narrated by Louise Lacroix, a seventeen year old who yearns for a better life. A life away from her mother’s brutish drunk of a partner, her factory job, the town’s regimented architecture and the smell of cabbages. One day as she is walking home by an indirect route she happens across a home occupied by an American couple who seem to be living a charming existence. She alters her route home to pass them each day and observe them, noticing that the sun always seemed to be shining there.

Louise gets up her courage and approaches the couple, suggesting that she could work for them as a maid. They are initially a little baffled by the suggestion and so Louise is surprised when the husband, Jess Rooland, arrives at her home to offer her the job. She quickly accepts and manages to convince them to let her live with them.

Soon Louise comes to realize that the reality of the Roolands’ lives does not match the image she had of them and we see that there were tensions within the household that predated her arrival. And Louise’s obsession with Jess grows…

I think Louise is a tremendously relatable protagonist, even if we identify some of her behaviors as selfish or self-destructive. Dard does a fine job of communicating the sense that she is feeling trapped in a routine she knows she will never be able to escape from and her wanting something more from life. The choice to tell the story in her voice is a smart one too, as it not only allows us to get a strong sense of her personality but it also means that we experience the story as she percieves it.

Louise’s age and relative inexperience in life sets her up to appear to be someone at risk, entering a world that she does not entirely understand. There are certainly some moments in the novel that would describe quite well, and yet I think it is a much richer, more complex work than it first appears. That is reflected both in the complexity of the plot but also some of the themes the book touches upon.

Dard’s story begins with the idea that the appearance of the Rooland’s marriage differs from the reality. We observe that marriage through Louise’s eyes and so we read it the way that she does, interpreting it through her understanding and her desires. Understanding that relationship is important and I was pleased to find that it was more nuanced and complex than I had expected with each character’s feelings explored and revealed. Their emotions and actions sometimes appear to contradict themselves but I feel by the end of the novel we have a very good idea of who each of those characters are and why they have acted in the way they did.

While I have obviously enjoyed and admired Dard’s work before, I hadn’t really considered him a particularly subtle writer prior to reading this. Instead he struck me as a writer reminiscent of Cain, delivering muscular prose and plotting with powerful, strong emotions. This book however features a number of wonderfully subtle moments where a character’s thoughts and feelings are hinted at rather than directly announced to the reader. One moment that particularly grabbed me was a throwaway reference to how Louise was asked by Thelma to model her clothing which may have a literal purpose but also seems quite interesting psychologically. Dard embraces the contradictions in characters’ desires and personalities, creating complex characters that reward close examination.

The story does unfold quite quickly with Dard covering a passage of months in just a few pages. In doing so though he is always careful to track the shifts within a relationship and highlights particular incidents that set things in a different path. There are two events that seem particularly pivotal. One of the two is too spoilery to go into here but the other features a party taking place that does not go the way Louise anticipates at all. In each case Dard does an excellent job of exploring Louise’s feelings and responses to what is happening, showing us not only what happens but how it affects her and her relationships with those around her.

The novel gets quite intense emotionally and is very focused on exploring relationships, though there is a more conventional mystery element that gets incorporated in the latter part of the book. This is handled quite well and while it is not particularly complex, I enjoyed trying to unpick how it was affecting the characters psychologically. It builds up to a really strong conclusion that I felt not only tied things up nicely but also packed a considerable punch, ending things in an interesting way.

As with the other Dard novels I have read, I think that Crush is a really interesting work thematically and I appreciated that its characters are more complex and nuanced than they may initially appear. Louise is a superb protagonist and I think Dard does a good job of managing to tell a story in which I found myself feeling rather sad for everyone involved. That takes some skill, particularly given a few of the plot developments here, but I believe Dard pulls it off brilliantly.

If you’ve never read any Dard but are interested, I can heartily recommend this one to you as a starting point.