Who is Amelie Nothomb, and Why Do Some Readers Hate Her So?

To my surprise, the light-as-air, slim, charming, comic autobiographical novel, Tokyo Fiancee by Belgian author Amelie Nothomb, triggered quite a passionate discussion at the University Book Store’s monthly book club meeting. I had feared the opposite, that it was so utterly likeable that there might not be enough discussion, that everyone would agree it was delightful and that would be the end of it.

Not a problem.

Personally I found her style so addicting I had quickly read her overlapping sequel novel, Fear and Trembling, about her nightmarish employment under her gorgeous ice queen boss at Yumimoto Corporation. Then I started reading The Character of Rain, which begins with the central character in the womb, thinking she’s God, and I had already purchased Loving Sabotage, about a diplomat’s child in China, to read next.

  The very first woman to speak at the book club meeting didn’t mince words. She simply hated Amelie Nothomb. “She’s entirely selfish, and doesn’t care who she hurts,” she complained. “I couldn’t stand her.”

That particular meeting had our highest male attendance (five) and oddly enough, considering how uninterested in men Amelie is, all five of the men found the central character refreshing, and a couple of the women admired her self-confidence and unconventional behavior. Not all the women. The others found her pretentious, selfish, and just plain exasperating.

  The charge of selfishness could certainly be leveled against Amelie. When her boyfriend can’t keep up in their ascent of Mt Fuji, she goes on without him. This becomes more impressive when you discover that in real life, Nothomb holds the world record for the fastest descent from Mt Fuji – she did it in forty minutes. Somehow discovering that she was as good as her word was exhilarating. So that wasn’t just poetic license! She really did run down the mountainside. Like several other French authors – here both Colette and Cocteau come to mind – she is a phenomenon off the page as well as on it, and she lives her life like a work of art.

  Our new book club member tried to sum it up by saying she’s a “free spirit.” That’s certainly some of the appeal, Amelie’s sheer ability to be who she really is. Whether she’s been demoted to toilet attendant in a huge multinational corporation or autographing her first novel in a bookstore, she’s blatantly herself.

What’s easy to forget when reading first person, I think, is that when faults are described, they are being confessed by the culprit herself. In other words, she’s making herself look bad on purpose. She’s already judged herself before you even read the words. You haven’t caught her with a flaw by surprise. She’s shining the light on it voluntarily. To me, that throws a fault into question, the very fact that it’s being confessed.

When Amelie accuses herself of eating every one of Rinri’s gift persimmons without offering him a single one, she shows not only that she’s rambunctious enough to do such a thing, but that she’s self-aware enough to be willing for you to judge her for it. That’s a very likeable trait in my book. I’ll be keeping my eye on Amelie Nothomb.



About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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