|Review by Lily Fierro|
In post 1950s America, the concept of the mid-life crisis has always brought up the thought of some outrageous sports car, an infidelity with someone far younger, or, more generally, some careless deviation from a male adult’s expected responsibilities, desires, and character.
Often provoked by the realization that half of life (or more) has passed by and little has been done to actually enjoy life thus far beyond accomplishing societal or familial defined checkpoints, the mid-life crisis, as portrayed by media, tends to focus more on the affluent but is by no means unique to only that class or to men in general.
In more recent times, we’ve also seen mid-life crises in media for mothers who have spent their entire lives dedicated to their families and have spent little or no time for themselves.
These tend to manifest in a change in image or a desire to gain more education rather than the purchase of a Corvette but nonetheless involve a deviation from routine behavior occurring for the past few decades.
The mid-life crisis is not a new concept for the general public, but there is certainly some room to explore how the mid-life crisis unfolds for a person who has nothing to lose from trying to resolve it.
In Lulu Anew, Étienne Davodeau explores the mid-life crisis for Lulu, a working class woman, who upon failing to gain a job again for the sixteenth year in a row, decides to take a break from her life. Stuck in a loveless marriage with her brute husband Tanguy and tired of her only roles as mother and housekeeper, Lulu decides to not return home after her failed interview and spends a few weeks wandering, leaving her friends, children, and husband behind to attempt to track down her whereabouts and understand why she left.
Told from the perspective of her friends and Lulu’s daughter, Morgane, Lulu Anew places the audience in a seat at a table on a porch where a few friends and Morgane recount Lulu’s course since the day she began her time out from her life. Throughout most of the book, we do not know exactly why the friends are gathered and whether or not Lulu met a good end, bad end, or any end at all, but we patiently sit at the table with everyone and hear how Lulu abandoned her responsibilities to her family and journeyed to find herself.
From the start, Lulu Anew has the potential to become too maudlin or too sanguine, but it grounds itself by making Lulu’s experiences humble and non-dramatic.
In addition, Davodeau makes Lulu a sympathetic and almost tragic character as a woman who has been isolated from the world with little to live for, to be excited about, or really even to contribute to beyond her family, much like Jeanne Moreau’s character in Bertrand Blier’s Going Places.
Consequently, even the cynic sticks to the book, with curiosity to see what Lulu can come up with on her trip with no resources and no help from anyone she knows.
On her initial days of freedom, Lulu makes a new friend at a hotel, who convinces her to take a trip a beach, where she spends the day walking and simply being and not thinking, not doing anything.
Eventually, she meets Charles, a newly released from prison embezzler whom she first befriends but eventually begins a relationship with. Both she and Charles live on the fringes of society, and together, they both just enjoy the smallest pleasures of being free in the company of someone who loves them.
At this point, as with many other major events that will occur on Lulu’s trek as the book progresses, we as the audience wonder if she will fully abandon her previous life.
With each moment of the trip revealed, each friend has a different response, some with harsher judgement, others with understanding, and as an invisible member of the table, we ask ourselves the question running through their minds: How selfish are Lulu’s actions? Sure, she should have the opportunity to find out what she wants in her life. Absolutely, she should do something to try to reinvigorate herself, but should she have gone on her mid-life discovery journey with such sheer abandonment of her children?
This question lingers throughout the readers’ and the characters’ minds, especially given that Lulu does not express clear remorse or joy for her sudden departure. This absence of regret and outright excitement for her abrupt and somewhat irresponsible freedom prevents the audience from being too judgmental of Lulu, and as a result, we continue to follow her through each point of her journey as she meets people at the beginning, middle, and end of their lives and quietly begins to understand what she wants for her own.
Though I do not personally agree with Lulu’s final decision or her philosophy on her life, I do respect the fact that Lulu’s journey of self discovery occurs through speaking to people, interacting with them, and enjoying their company.
She does not decide she wants to climb Mount Everest to test her own physical and psychological strength. She does not travel to a foreign land to try to gain some false sense of spiritual awareness through another culture and faith. She simply talks to people; some become friends, others remain as strangers, but by the end of Lulu Anew, Lulu’s awakening comes from ability to be more aware of the people around her.
Regardless of your final judgement on Lulu’s decision to leave or her contemplation on returning, her mid-life crisis vacation reminds us that living in a monotonous routine is a conscious decision we make, and at anytime, we can make the decision to break the cycle if we want to by simply living with awareness of the people and the world around us.