‘I don’t see why the love between a mother and son should be any different from other kinds of love. Why shouldn’t we be allowed to stop loving each other? Why shouldn’t we be allowed to break up?’ So begins Love Me Tender, the simply told but deeply felt new novel from Constance Debré, a story inspired by the French writer’s experience of leaving her husband and losing custody of her child. A story that’s quietly heartbreaking and fiercely defiant.
When we meet our narrator, Constance, she has been separated from Laurent for three years, though definitions are fuzzy: ‘I call him my ex, he still calls me his wife.’ A dozen pages in she tells him over dinner at their favourite Paris restaurant that she’s started seeing girls and wants a divorce – ‘in case there was any doubt in his mind, with the new short hair, the new tattoos’. A few pages later he tells her over the phone that their eight-year-old son Paul can’t stand her, that he doesn’t want to see her anymore. And then Laurent announces that he’s ‘applying for sole custody, with termination of my parental rights. He’s accusing me of incest and paedophilia.’
You might expect what follows to be intense and claustrophobic; that Love Me Tender is the kind of novel that has you longing to clamber up and out of its protagonist’s head. But Constance is a quiet and thoughtful companion. She spends her days waiting (to see her son, for the hearing), reading, writing, swimming, sleeping with women. Her lovers are numbered, initialled, physically defined (‘the young one’, ‘the skinny one’).