Cécile, the narrator of the story, is seventeen, on the cusp of adulthood. It is a difficult stage of growing up. Are you a child or an adult? For a period, around that age, you can be either, depending on circumstance. In moments of stress you revert to childishness; in moments of calm you stretch your emotional responses, experiment with differing perspectives. It can be a confusing time, disorientating, sometimes even upsetting. For Cécile, her difficulties are compounded by the fact that her mother is dead and her father is a philandering wastrel. During their long summer holiday on the French Riviera, her father has invited his 29 year old lover, Elsa Mackenbourg, to join them and the three live a bohemian existence which Cécile, knowing no better, takes for normality. This idyll is thrown into disarray when Raymond later invites another friend, the older and more mature Anne Larsen, to join them. Anne is a friend of Cécile’s late mother and she brings an element of sophistication to their ramshackle lifestyle. Raymond proposes to her, she accepts, and from here Cécile’s difficulties begin to grow.
After being treated as an adult and an equal by her father, Cécile is shocked by and resentful of the controlling way that Anne begins to deal with her. She is forced to study for her exams. She is treated as a child. She is forbidden to meet Cyril, the young man whom she has been seeing during the summer. She concocts a plan. Disaster ensues.
The novel focuses on Cecile’s intellectual growing pains. It is an irony that when she is at her most immature she is treated as an adult and as she matures she is increasingly treated as a child. This, of course, adds to her confusion and resentment. One feels for her: she is, unknowingly, at a massive disadvantage, with a feckless father who is intent solely on indulging his own selfish tendencies. She has no-one on whom to model herself until Anne appears and, not surprisingly, rather than learn from this intelligent and wise woman, instead she rebels against her imposed authority. Even now, all might not be lost if only her father could derive some sense of paternal competence but that is beyond Raymond. Cécile is let down. Everybody is let down.
The novel is beautifully written. The prose is uncluttered and simple, yet lyrical and evocative. It is very short, and it does not strain for great depth, but it explores the pain of youth, its confusions, its delusions, its sense of timelessness. It is an exploration of love, and we know what a difficult emotion that can be. In this novel there is only one true and honest love, that of Anne for Raymond. All the other permutations – Cécile for Cyril, Cyril for Cécile, Raymond for Elsa, Elsa for Raymond, Raymond for Anne – they are only varying forms of delusion, self or otherwise. Only one true love exists here, then, and in the end it is not sufficient to carry the day. Cécile describes the tristesse that informs the title as “her realisation of the responsibility involved in exercising her freedom to make choices”. Human beings are, indeed, free to make choices, but we are seldom very good at it. And in Sagan’s beautiful little novel, Cécile leads us to the enduring truth that, with the advent of adulthood, we are most of us generally forced to say hello to sadness.