THE PLOT: The Scents of Marie-Claire by Habib Selmi is a love story between a Tunisian man and a French woman set in Paris. A short novel, it was translated from Arabic by Fadwa Al Qasem and shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009. Moving back and forth in time, the main character – Mahfouth – narrates the start and end of his relationship with the sensual and enigmatic Marie-Claire.
RATING: Ummmm, I wanted to like this book more than I did. It was a bit too slow. Although it’s a character driven novel and very much about the relationship between the two characters, I would’ve liked a few more events or plot points to raise the stakes and keep me going. I think it’s important to find an own voices review of this book because there were subtleties about the different cultures, particularly that of the colonizer and colonized, that may not have been as poignant for me. However, I’m giving it three stars.
GOOD BITS: This is a very intimate, sensual and nuanced book. It tells us of an ordinary relationship between a man and woman, demonstrating how desire can fade into the routine. I felt it was very realistic and demonstrates some universal truths about heterosexual romantic relationships. For example, the influence Marie-Claire has on Mahfouth is very domestic and, in some ways, maternal. There are many instances where he doesn’t listen when she speaks, but agrees because he is eager to please her, which I’ve found in relationships (on both sides). There were so many times when there were bubbling tensions and things unsaid beneath an outwardly calm scene, and a form of muted jealousy on both sides, which grew as the novel developed.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: Not much happens in this book. Luckily, it’s only 172 pages so I wasn’t tempted to DNF and something kept me going (which shows it wasn’t completely devoid of plot), but I wasn’t rushing to read it every day. Also, this book is the male gaze, so you really have to get past that. The way the main character describes and portrays his other half is… well, he sees her as a sexual creature and eroticizes her, which I guess is appropriate for a sexual partner but doesn’t particularly excite me in a novel. I don’t read a ton of books written by men and this is why – I found the sexualization tedious.
OVERALL: For some inexplicable reason, I really think a lover of Catcher in the Rye or the Great Gatsby would enjoy this. I’d give it to a brooding man in his early twenties. In fact, I dated a Parisian guy in my early twenties who might like this (maybe I should look him up, if he’s still on tinder…). Unfortunately, it wasn’t really for me, but I can see why others may find it an interesting and intimate character study.