Three by Valérie Perrin

1720 1

Translated by Hildegarde Serle

Reviewed by Harriet

My name is Virginie. I’m the same age as them. 
Today, out of the three, only Adrian still speaks to me.
Nina despises me.
As for Etienne, it’s me who can no longer stand him.
And yet, they’ve fascinated me since childhood. I’ve only ever become attached to those three.
And to Louise.

Although the three of the title are Nina, Etienne, and Adrian, the first chapter and a considerable amount of the rest of this long, intricate novel are narrated by the mysterious Virginie. All we know about her is that she’s a journalist and translator, and lives alone in the small village of La Comelle, close to Nina, who does not, however, recognise or speak to her, despite the fact that she seems to have been part of their lives since childhood. There is an explanation, of course, but the reader will have to wait until the last hundred or so pages to find out what  it is.

The present of the novel is 2017, and Virginie’s chapters are all from this date, as are many of the other omniscient chapters that intersperse them  But there are also many chapters from other eras: 1987, when the three children are ten and meet for the first time at school; 1990; 1993; 1994; 1997; 1999; 2000; 2001; and 2003. In other words, the novel tells the stories of the three peoples’ lives, but constantly intersperses past and present. The identity of Virginie is only one of the mysteries in the 2017 chapters, the details of which are gradually revealed as the plot delves into the past in  roughly chronological order, with their final resolutions only provided near the book’s end.

Sounds complicated, and certainly the reader has to be on their toes to keep up with what’s happening when, and probably will need to keep referring back to the chapter headings to remind themselves of where and when they are in the story. Essentially, though, Three tells the story of an exceptionally close friendship between three primary-age children, which continues into adolescence and up to college age, only to be disrupted by traumatic events which separate them for many years. The children are Nina, sensitive and artistic, who has been raised by her beloved grandfather since her mother walked out when she was a baby; Adrian, quiet and intellectual, whose divorced mother has brought him up on her own; and Etienne, handsome and sporty, who is much less bright than the other two, relies on them to get him through his exams, and is the only one with a full family. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, their various parents and caregivers have totally accepted the friendship, and they are all welcome in each others’ homes. Although they have remained exceptionally close, there has never been anything sexual between the two boys and Nina, and as they grow up they form their own relationships, with sometimes rather disastrous results. 

As for the mysteries, Perrin adeptly drops bits of information which the reader – and sometimes the other characters – muse over throughout the novel. What happened to the three young peoples’ plan to live and study together in Paris? Why has Nina chosen to live alone, looking after the cats and dogs in an animal shelter? What happened to Etienne’s girlfriend Clothilde? Why did Adrian cut short his career as a successful playwright and disappear from view?  When all is revealed, including Virginie’s role, everything makes sense, and, despite much trauma along the way, the resolution is overall a positive one for all concerned. It’s really impossible to say more about the plot without giving too much away. 

So this is a novel about human relationships, about trust, about making decisions, about keeping secrets, and in the end, I suppose, about how mysterious bonds can form between young people that can endure through separation, misunderstandings and fear. It is a long read, but if you are absorbed by the story you won’t mind that. It is, of course, translated from French – a notoriously difficult language to translate well – and at times this was potentially a problem for me. For example, there are many song lyrics throughout the text which I found rather jarring in English but I’m sure sound much better in French; I can read French and sometimes I found myself rather wishing I’d read the novel in the original language. Luckily, though, Anglophone readers can enjoy it thanks to Hidegarde Serle’s translation. And thanks to Europa for bringing this prizewinning author to the English speaking world.

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Harriet is one of the founders and co-editor of Shiny New Books

Valérie Perrin, Three, translated by Hildegarde Serle (Europa Editions, 2022). 978-1787703766, 512pp., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. That does sound good, Harriet – I love a book with a mystery at its heart which keeps you guessing!

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