A review of Scrapbook by Nadine Bismuth

Published on October 1, 2008

Nadine Bismuth

McArthur & Company

A first novel about a writer writing her first novel; already, the heart sinks. Although protagonist Annie Brière gets through a screenplay, some advertising copy, and the first chapters of her second novel – not to mention several lovers, a couple of apartments, a partial dose of anti-parasite pills, and quite a lot of her dentist father’s money – before the end of Scrapbook, the heart never bobs up again.

It’s not all the fault of the author. The translation is dreadful: scarred with errors factual and grammatical, weighted with infelicities, and studded with inappropriate Briticisms (“sod it,” “bloke,” and “mackintosh” all make appearances). Gatsby le magnifique is rendered as Gatsby the Wonderful. Mind-boggling enough that the translator made such a mistake, but how could the copy editor fail to correct it? Unsatisfying as it is, Scrapbook should not have been so badly served by its translator and editor, who, with care, could have produced a text that offered readers at least the pleasures of light romance.

But Montrealer Nadine Bismuth – whose first book, a collection of short stories, was a literary success in French – has written a novel that is simply not very good. The story of a grad student whose creative writing thesis is accepted by a Montreal publishing house as she flounders through a series of ill-starred romantic and familial relationships, Scrapbook is chick lit in the worst sense: insubstantial, boring, and shallow. It is a supposed love story utterly lacking both genuine affection and sexual tension.

The main character, Plateau-dweller Annie Brière, is rude, spoiled, and dull, entering into a series of purely mechanical or, even worse (from the point of view of the reader craving a plot), merely circumstantial relationships. Opportunism is her method in all things and almost everyone around her – her sister, her thesis advisor, her boyfriend – behaves much the same way. Annie’s thesis/novel is supposedly a satire of suburban life, but there is not much in the way of satire or even humour in Scrapbook itself. In skilled hands, the character of the unlikeable hero can be a pleasure to read. Such a portrait could have offered the opportunity for a sharp critique of bourgeois amorality, not to mention the possibility of redemption. Except there is no bite to this story. By the end Annie’s problems are resolved and her desires fulfilled, but only through the combined workings of chance and privilege. The characters are barely differentiated (a wolfish male student in a “chic leather jacket,” having stolen a kiss from our heroine, exclaims, “Yummy!”). The plot is contrived and repetitive, the passage of time marked by successive platters of nachos being served during a series of annual Super Bowl parties. The sordid inner workings of the worlds of academe and of publishing that the book purports to reveal will not surprise anyone. There is no narrative momentum, nothing to draw the reader into an engagement with the characters.

Although Annie lives in Montreal, moving through a cityscape identified by street names (Rachel, Brébeuf) and familiar neighbourhoods (the Plateau, Old Montreal), the flavour of Montreal life is almost entirely absent. What a shame, both because Montreal has such a vibrant culture and because local details are such an effective way to evoke a sense of place.

If the English-language publication of Scrapbook remains a missed opportunity, one hopes that Bismuth’s profile as a writer will be redeemed by a good-quality translation into English of her warmly received short stories. mRb

Elise Moser is a writer and editor who coordinates the Atwater Writers Exhibition and co-organizes the Holiday Pop-up Book Fair. She has published three books and is working on the next one.



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