Annie Ernaux’s Do What They Say or Else is a matter-of-fact coming of age story set in Normandy, France, in the late 1960s. It’s not sweet or sentimental. It’s straightforward and refreshing. Simple and profound.
Anne is 15 and a half, bored, disgusted by her parents, and intensely curious about sex. Sounds about right. She is suffering through the summer before she starts high school. This is the summer she begins to leave her parents behind and experiment with being an adult. She has secrets, which she is happy to share with the reader, but not with her parents. Smart decision.
One secret is “if I had to die, in a war for example, I would throw myself at the first guy who came along.” So would I. She is wise and makes keen observations – such as perverts start to “come out in March like the primroses.” Or this one about her parents: “you have to keep your mouth shut all the time so you won’t hurt their feelings.” She has just read Camus’ The Stranger and is deeply affected. She would love to discuss the book with her parents, but she knows they will not find that normal.
Like all teenagers, Anne is cynical but also naive. “There must come a day when everything is clear, when everything falls into place.” If only. Anne is a wonderful narrator because she’s curious about everything and insightful. She is every 15 year old I remember being, and it is fascinating to listen to her as she navigates to adulthood. “Curiosity is normal at my age: it would be strange if that wasn’t the case, except that for girls, curiosity can lead to anything, and it’s frowned upon.” Anne ain’t wrong.
Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor