A Woman’s Battles opens on a note of apology. Louis, now a successful writer whose life has taken him far beyond the small-town torments of The End of Eddy, finds a photo of his mother at age 20 that evokes a sense of freedom and possibility ahead that is at once arresting and touching, in large part because it anticipates a life that departs so starkly from the one Louis knows lay ahead of her. The image suggests the possibility of a quite different life for a woman whose existence he claims had been “deformed and almost destroyed by misery and masculine violence.” It also forces Louis to confront the ways in which he has been, along with his father and other men, “one of the agents of [her] destruction.” To understand and reconcile with the woman who was his mother and the woman who she could have been, Louis excavates her story as a means not only to “explain and understand her life” but also to reveal the “external forces — society, masculinity, my father” — that shaped the narrow confines of her asphyxiating existence.
The portrait we get of Monique’s life is constructed out of vignettes gleaned from scrapbooks and interviews, rendered in the signature collage style that Louis deftly uses to connect his mother’s experience to a broader narrative of working-class struggle. At 16, Monique enrolls in a hospitality program with dreams of becoming a chef, a choice that is traditional (“women had always done the cooking and served others”) but which also promises a more self-determined life (a career distinctly her own). She left the program soon after discovering that she was pregnant with her first child, and married the child’s abusive, philandering, alcoholic father. A few years later, Monique gathers the courage to leave her first husband, soon marrying Louis’s father in the hope of a better life. “[H]e was different,” she tells Louis, adding that he took her on beach trips, took her shopping, and wore cologne. “He smelled so nice.”
As any reader familiar with The End of Eddy and Who Killed My Father will know, the honeymoon doesn’t last. Louis is born while Monique’s relationship with his father deteriorates into a familiar pattern of alcoholism and rage. Things go from bad to worse when a debilitating accident at the factory renders her husband incapable of working, drastically reducing their income to the meager allowance of state benefits and compelling her to take a job as a home health aide. Then, the coup de grâce: Monique discovers that she is pregnant again, despite taking the precautions of an IUD. Knowing that the family cannot afford to take care of more children, she suggests getting an abortion. Her husband refuses, and she gives birth to twins. Taking care of five children, managing her health aide work and an embittered, housebound partner who screams hateful epithets at her, Monique resigns herself to a life subordinate to her husband’s. “[H]er life was stripped of all interest,” Louis observes. “She no longer had a story of her own; her story could only be, ultimately, [my father’s] story.”
Louis’s sympathetic recognition of his mother’s condition as an adult comes with a heavy dose of guilt for his behavior as a child. He recalls lashing out at his mother when she told stories about her family and her past that no one else cared to hear. As an adult, he understands those stories were a shared survival strategy. “I couldn’t see that she spoke to ease the boredom,” he reasons from the perch of adulthood, “and that for her, as it would be for me many years later, the telling of her life’s story was the best remedy she could think of to help her bear the weight of her existence.” Later, Louis recalls the embarrassment his mother inspired in him when he was a boy, an embarrassment that made him deny she was his mother when friends saw her in the street, that made him fantasize that he had a different mother. When he starts attending a special school in a nearby town, an education that will catalyze his own transformation, he forges this newfound knowledge into a cudgel with which to beat away his mother, his family, and the life he wishes to abandon. “I wanted to use my new life as revenge against my childhood, against all the times when you and my father made me understand that I wasn’t the son you had wished for,” he explains, describing scenes in which he taunted his mother with words she did not understand, and corrected her grammar with a schoolmasterly disdain. “I became a class defector out of revenge — and this violence was added to all the others that you had already lived through.” What pulls mother and son apart, ultimately, is a politics of shame. Ashamed of her son for not living up to a heterosexual male ideal and ashamed of herself, it would seem, for all of the “failures” women are made to lay at their own feet in patriarchal cultures, Monique pulls away. Ashamed of his class and his family, the young Édouard pulls away, too. “When I was a child, we felt ashamed together — of our house, of our poverty,” Louis laments. “Now, I was ashamed of you, against you. Our shame had parted ways.”
A Woman’s Battles does have moments of joy, though they are usually routes to the author’s more mournful realizations. One particularly bright spot is when Monique befriends Angelique, a woman who introduces her to a world of hairdressers, exotic “foods that made us feel different and distinguished,” and “just us girlfriends” trips to the seaside. These intimacies are respites from a life in which Monique cannot exist as a woman for herself, indeed cannot exist as anything outside the servile, miserable personas of a wife and mother. Her cross-class friendship with Angelique shows Monique a glimpse of what it might be like to live a freer, richer life. With Angelique, Monique can “exist as a woman,” Louis argues, “as opposed to the nonexistence imposed upon you by your life, and by life with my father.” This honeymoon, too, has its expiration date. Angelique’s longing for a man is rewarded in a happy new relationship, but as she takes up that new life, she no longer has time for Monique. Louis reasons that the end of their friendship was yet another relationship in which his mother had been let down, in which she has been abandoned once again:
It was as if [Angelique’s] romantic depression, a psychological factor, had somehow rendered porous the usual laws of sociology — the fact that people from a certain milieu socialize only with those of the same milieu, and that there is virtually no possible mixing between social classes. […] When you spoke of her, you shrugged and said: We weren’t good enough for her anyway. You felt abandoned, and you were, you were alone.
What makes Louis’s writing, here and elsewhere, feel so fresh to these American eyes is its focus on class, a social reality that is often obscured by other identity markers — especially race, gender, and sexuality — that take center stage in our national culture. The End of Eddy could be (and probably is) largely read by Americans as a triumphant gay coming-of-age tale. It has all the hallmarks of the genre: a young queer kid wrestles with the alienation and violence of his local heterosexual culture, has fleeting sexual encounters that provide self-recognition and release, but which end in terror and shame, and eventually fights his way to a better life in Paris. But by turning repeatedly to the question of class, Louis at once provides refreshing texture to the gay coming-of-age experience while also decentering sexuality as the sole challenge that young Eddy faces. In this regard, Louis’s writing resonates with Scottish writer Douglas Stuart’s recent novel Young Mungo, which tells the story of a youthful gay romance without diminishing the complexity of the class and religious struggles that structured life and culture for Glasgow’s underclass during the 1980s and ’90s, when broad-scale deindustrialization decimated the economic base of many working-class families. In Louis’s writing, class is stubborn, an intractable condition that at once puts tremendous pressure on the desire for sociopolitical change and calls into question the very possibility of transformation within the existing liberal regime. It is perhaps because of Louis’s misgivings about the possibility of transformation that he has returned now three times to the scene of his childhood. For his audiences, these tales are highly salable and accrete to their author all kinds of cultural and (one imagines) economic capital. On the strength of this thrice-told story and audiences’ adoration for victim-to-victor narratives, Louis has been able to make a living as a writer whose works have not only sold well, but also have been adapted into plays performed from New York to Berlin. Yet, one gets the clear sense that for Louis, the return to the scene of a troubled childhood is motivated not by opportunism, but by the unresolved nature of his transformation story, a condition that asks big questions for the writer and, he appears to hope, for his reader.
There is, as the title promises, a transformation at the end of A Woman’s Battles. Monique kicks Louis’s father out and manages to secure a new place of her own. She falls in love with another man, one who actually is different than the ones who came before, and moves to Paris. She becomes, in a short time, a new woman. “Nothing about her resembled the woman who had been my mother,” Louis recalls. “She wore makeup, her hair was colored. She wore jewelry. A few weeks away from the village, and from what had been her life for too long, had been enough to transform her appearance radically.” In a moment that appears as the Instagrammable proof of Monique’s transformation (and her son’s), she finds herself smoking a cigarette with Catherine Deneuve. The meeting had been set up, in a way, by Louis, who had met Deneuve at a film shoot. When Deneuve heard his mother’s story and realized they lived in the same neighborhood, she promised to drop by for a visit. For Monique, it feels like a life-changing meeting and confirmation of the reward for her hard years of struggle:
You told me how Catherine Deneuve had come and stood in front of your building and had suggested having a smoke and a chat. “I was looking around discreetly while we talked because I hoped as many people as possible would see me talking with her. I wanted everyone to know that Catherine Deneuve was talking to me.”
I had never heard such emotion in your voice, as if this interaction with an actor you’d admired since you were young represented and condensed all the efforts you had made in your transformation. You summed it up, brow furrowed: “I’ve been pushed around all my life, but now I’m in Paris and I know Catherine Deneuve.”
It’s a big Hollywood moment that could have been the book’s into-the-sunset closing scene. Once part of the underclass, mother and son now circulate in an upper-class milieu of celebrity and the cultural elite. This trajectory is, on this side of the Atlantic, the stuff of foundational yearning and desperate belief: you can struggle and, through struggle, you can make it. Even if it is, in the end, just the scene of two women smoking cigarettes, it has the power to communicate hard-won pleasure.
For many writers, this celebrity scene — so rich with the realization of a class victory that is always about transcendence — would have been the end of the tale. But not for Louis, who closes out A Woman’s Battle with this haunting reflection:
In what I know of her today, there are dozens of images and facts that contradict [my mother’s] simple story of a happy transformation. She has never traveled outside of France; she continues to buy food at low-cost supermarkets for the poor on the outskirts of Paris; she doesn’t earn any money, so she still relies on the man she lives with; she can’t make friends with the people in the neighborhood, the rich women on her street who look at her condescendingly. She admits: “There are days when I get bored. I don’t have friends here. People here aren’t like us.”
Is a change still a change when it is circumscribed to this extent by class violence?
What Louis sketches here in such beautifully direct language is an indictment of the very narratives of transformation that make palatable the (un)changing same of socioeconomic life in contemporary liberal democracies. Monique’s life has been transformed in very important ways — she has left a string of abusive husbands for what appears to be a happy relationship with a man who respects her, she has left a stultifying life in a small town with little opportunities for women like her for a life in Paris where her son is a famous writer, and she has shared a cigarette with Catherine Deneuve. But as Louis notes, these are mostly superficial changes: Monique is still lonely, still yoked to a class identity and existence that hold her back from the life we might want to see her living, from the life she might want to be living.
What’s more, from a bird’s-eye view, this transformation is predicated on extremely contingent events rather than structural movement. To take the Deneuve episode as a prime example, Monique has met a famous actress because her son happened to become a famous writer because a publisher happened to believe in his first book, which happened to do well and thus helped greenlight more books. Édouard Louis is an incredibly talented writer, but there are so many such writers in the world, very few of whom are lucky enough to tell Catherine Deneuve where their mother lives — especially if they do not hail from the zip codes or MFA and PhD programs that gatekeep literary publishing. But Louis’s story is precisely what audiences, especially American audiences, love: the promise that hard experience begets a rich reward, that a bad life can be exchanged for the good life. In these narratives, there’s no need for the system to change, because the snapshot of the transformation — a cigarette with the Catherine Deneuve — stands in as a guarantee that the system can work for anyone, if not everyone. The exception, in this case, sanctions the rule.
It is to his great credit that Louis — in A Woman’s Battles and Transformations, Who Killed My Father, and The End of Eddy — refuses this simple narrative. He reminds us, again and again, that class — and the socioeconomic system that (re)produces it — shapes the realities of toxic masculinity, homophobia, misogyny, and myriad other social ills. If readers hear him, they will hear not only the dramatic story of one French family, but also the larger story of the more urgent changes that are needed so that his tales of transformation are not the unique exception, but rather the experience of so many millions more whose voices have yet to reach our ears.
Eric Newman is a writer, critic, and researcher whose work explores questions of race, belonging, identity, and utopian imagination in 20th-century queer American culture.