Mon amie américaine by Michèle Halberstadt, trans. by Bruce Benderson

In a long letter to a friend in a coma, a Parisian woman meditates on friendship.

mon amie

Parisian Michèle and New Yorker Molly have been friends for many years. As colleagues in the film industry, they travel together, and talk on the phone nearly daily–until, at 40, Molly collapses in her office and becomes comatose. Michèle Halberstadt’s (The Pianist in the Dark) novel Mon Amie Américaine takes the form of a long letter Michèle writes to Molly, in lieu of speaking, because “The words I can’t share with you are choking me.” As Molly remains unresponsive, uncomfortable truths are revealed behind a presumably lifelong friendship.

Michèle’s letter acts as a diary, an account of her experience of Molly’s near death: getting the news; tracking her friend’s progress (or lack thereof); being forbidden to visit; and finally, after Molly awakens several months later, discovering a different person from the one she’s missed. The new Molly is hesitant, frightened and languid where the old one was a high-powered businesswoman, vibrant and fun. Meanwhile, Michèle suffers injuries in her own life, with no Molly to turn to.

Bruce Benderson’s translation from the French is melodic and evokes fluent but accented English, exactly as the reader expects Michèle to sound. Her tone ranges from elegiac to loving to frustrated (“How many times in the last ten years have I repeated you ought to see a specialist”) to self-pitying and to resigned. This love letter to friendship ends by considering what we are willing to do for those we love, and what obstacles even friendship may be unable to overcome.

This review originally ran in the April 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

Rating: 7 phone messages.

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