Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, France, Penguin, Philippe Besson, Publisher, Setting

‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 148 pages; 2019. Translated from the French by Molly Ringwald.

The passion that can’t be talked about, that has to be concealed, gives way to the terrible question: if it isn’t talked about, how can one know that it really exists?

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson is a bittersweet novella about first love between two teenage boys in rural France in the 1980s.

Their affair, kept hidden because of the shame surrounding homosexuality at the time, begins in winter but is over by the summer. During those few intense months, their love is passionate but furtive. For both boys, it is a sexual awakening that has long-lasting repercussions on how they live the rest of their lives.

A story in three parts

The story is divided into three parts — 1984, 2007 and 2016 — each of which is narrated by Philippe, a famous writer, who fell in love with a boy at his small French high school when he was 17 years old.

In the first section, he details the affair he had with Thomas Andrieu, whom he had admired from afar for quite some time before Thomas, who was a year older than him, issued a surprise invitation.

In the second, more than 20 years after their affair ends, Philippe runs into Thomas’s doppelganger — only to discover that the good looking young man is, in fact, Thomas’s son, Lucas.

In the third and desperately sad final part, Lucas gets in touch with Philippe to impart some news about his father.

An old story told in a new way

Of course, we have read this kind of story about forbidden love before. Perhaps what makes this novella different (aside from the fact it has been translated by Hollywood actress Molly Ringwald) is that it reveals what happens when people are not allowed to be their authentic selves.

In the aftermath of the affair between two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, we come to understand how their sexual orientation shapes the rest of their lives: one man embraces his homosexuality and is comfortable in his own skin, while the other gets married and tries to be someone he is not — with tragic consequences.

The novella is written in a deeply melancholic style and is completely free of sentiment. The prose is sensual, tender and filled with longing.

This feeling of love, it transports me, it makes me happy. At the same time, it consumes me and makes me miserable, the way all impossible loves are miserable.

Emotional detachment

But as much as I admired the beautiful writing, I found it hard to connect with the protagonists, not because I didn’t understand nor empathise with their predicament, but because the narrator’s voice is so cool and aloof I felt one step removed from the story. And yet, this is a terribly sad tale about thwarted opportunity, lost love and the inability to live an authentic life. It should have wrecked me; instead I felt emotionally detached.

Several reviews I have read have drawn comparisons with André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name. I have not read that book but I have seen the film adaptation, which is so beautiful and EMOTIONAL and absolutely DEVASTATING that I bawled like a baby at the end. It’s kind of how I thought this one would affect me, but it didn’t.

That said, Lie With Me has been adorned with praise (including from Aciman himself) and been a bestseller in France. It won the prestigious Maison de la Presse Prize in 2017 when it was first published.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Fairyland’ by Sumner Lock Elliott: Australian classic about a gay man hiding his real self from the world in the 1930s and 40s when homosexuality was illegal.

‘The Last Fine Summer’ by John MacKenna: A heart-rending Irish novel about a newly widowed school teacher recalling his love affair with a man 10 years earlier.

26 thoughts on “‘Lie With Me’ by Philippe Besson”

  1. I have it on the shelf but I haven’t read it yet.
    I love Philippe Besson, especially In the Absence of Men.
    He’s one of my four Philippes: Djian, Claude, Beason and Deleem.


    1. I had not heard of him before; I simply stumbled upon this book when browsing in the library and thought it sounded like something I would like. I wonder if they have In the Absence of Men… 🤔


      1. Hi Kim,

        I’ve read it now, in French, of course.

        I have a question for you regarding the translation. Would you mind going back to the book and tell me how the last paragraph of the first chapter is translated?

        In French it is “A la rentrée de septembre, je quitte Barbezieux. Je deviens pensionnaire au lycée Michel-de-Montaigne à Bordeaux. J’intègre une prépa HEC. Je débute une nouvelle vie. Celle qu’on a choisie pour moi. …”

        Thanks a lot.


        1. I borrowed this from the library so don’t have access to this book. Sorry, Emma. And even books I buy don’t stay in my possession very long; they go to family, friends or charity shops.


          1. Hi Emma… I went to the library to pick up some books I had on hold, and I found the Besson on the shelf and scanned that para for you 😊

            “At the beginning of September, I leave Barbezieux. I go to college at the Lycée Michel-de-Montaigne in Bordeaux, working toward a graduate degree in business. I begin a new life, the one that was chosen for me, bowing to the hope and ambition that have been placed in me.
            I erase Thomas Andrieu.”


          2. Hi Kim,

            Thank you so much for taking the time to get that paragraph for me. I wondered how the translator fared with the “prépa HEC” thing, which is a very French school system element.

            In the book, Philippe is a senior in high school (In “Terminale” in French) and in Terminale C, which meant at the time Math/Physics majors, considered as The Elite, while Thomas is in Terminale D (Math/Biology majors) considered as second best after Terminale Cs.

            Then Philippe goes to “prépa HEC”, which corresponds to another elite school system thing. You need to be among the best in class in high school to get in, you cram very hard during one or two years, then you have competitive exams for a large panel of business schools.
            It’s composed of written competitive exams (Maths, Philosophy, French, English, Economy and a second language) and your rank is high enough in the written exams, you have oral ones (an interview, sometimes maths and always English and a second language)
            You get in the best business school you can, according to your ranking. This was considered as the elite track to become a corporate executive in business.
            The best school is HEC, which is why the post-high school track is named Prépa HEC, prep school for HEC. (The same system exists for science, btw)

            Philippe Besson graduated from the Rouen business school after that. This track is also (unfortunately) a social marker. I’ve been through it, the only students there are children of corporate executives or of teachers.

            This paragraph in the book, with this little sentence “J’intègre une prépa HEC” packs a lot for a French reader or at least for me.

            It emphazises the difference between Philippe and Thomas. Philippe will leave home to go to prep school, then will move out of the region to go to a business school wherever he lands after the competitive exams and will move up the social ladder. Thomas feels that he needs to take over his parents’ farm and there’s nothing more tying-to one-place than farming.


          3. Ah, so it’s a class thing: Philippe, who becomes highly educated and moved in upper social circles, has the freedom or the confidence to become his authentic self; Thomas doesn’t.


          4. I’ve seen the movie. Different from the book but good and Besson was on board. I imagine he agreed with the changes.


  2. At a memoir-writing workshop I once took, the instructor (an author of both fiction and nonfiction) said something like “When you’re dealing with a hot topic, write cool.” The purpose of this approach is to avoid going overboard and becoming too sentimental, losing control of oneself and of the material. Perhaps Besson worried about his writing on this topic becoming overwrought and therefore took the “cooler” way out. I’m not saying this was necessarily a wise choice, just one possible approach to such a sensitive topic.


    1. That’s a really interesting approach… hadn’t thought of it like that. Part of me wondered whether it might have been the translation or whether the story was simply too short to really get to know the characters properly. It’s still a wonderful read, though.


  3. Thanks for a well-written review. My Gay Men’s Book Club read this. I started it but didn’t finish since I knew I was going to be out of town for our meeting. Now I’ll have to give it another try.


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