Book review: Love Me Tender by Constance Debré

Writer Constance Debré, from a prestigious French family quit her job as a lawyer and left her husband of twenty years in pursuit of herself as a butch lesbian. When she tells her ex-husband she is sleeping with women and wants a divorce, he responds by telling her that their eight year old son Paul hates her. He takes custody of their son and severs Debré’s relationship with him. Love Me Tender is about her journey as her life is falling apart.

I spit it out, I say, I’ve started seeing girls. Just in case there was any doubt in his mind, with the new short hair, the new tattoos, the look in general. It’s basically the same as before, obviously just a bit more distinct.

After six months Debré applies for joint custody, only to be accused of incest and paedophilia. The judge grants the ex-husband sole custody, and Debré only supervised visits under the watchful eyes of experts. One hours every fifteen days until the next hearing in two years time. By the time the courts grant her access rights to spend time alone with her son, the distance between them cannot be bridged, largely due to her ex-husband’s campaign against her. Eventually she gives up, grieves her son and moves on.

As for your dad and I, his anger towards me, everything he’s said about me, to the judge, to you, don’t take it to heart. Don’t be angry with him. This kind of thing happens all the time, arguments between two people who once loved each other. That’s the ways it’s always been, acid getting thrown in faces when people fall out of love.

Debré’s life shrinks. She gives up the apartment that she once shared with her son to stay in cheap studios and the beds of lovers and friends. She sheds possessions down to three t-shirts, two pairs of jeans, an old leather jacket and a Rolex. She spends her time swimming, smoking cigarettes and having sex. Swimming keeps her sane. Sex is addiction, not romance – it obliterates the self.

I don’t know if you hate me. You don’t have to answer. You’re allowed to hate me. In fact, hate is a necessary part of love. There is no love without hate. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar or a coward.

Love Me Tender tracks Debré’s transformation. She does not just come out and continue her life trajectory. She sheds people and things and femininity and embraces a kind of machismo, shaving her head, getting tattoos and giving her lovers, ‘the girls’, a number rather than a name.

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?

Her refusal to participate in a way that is expected of a woman of her class results in her sliding from her formerly bourgeois life and being rejected by her family. As her roles as a wife, mother and professional dissolve, she becomes a new person and takes on a new existence and life and relationship to the world.

I wasn’t made for the domestic life. That’s usually the reason it doesn’t work out with girls.

Love Me Tender is a short book (only 165 pages) with free flowing sentences that make compelling reading. Neither the book nor Debré will be for everyone, but we all respond differently and grief. Perhaps is the due to the distance at which she keeps her reader, that I could not turn away and kept turning the pages, hoping to get beneath the lack of sentimentality and almost blasé tone. Her prose is punchy, unapologetic and hauntingly honest. I found Love Me Tender uncomfortably refreshing and could not put it down.

Book review: Seed to Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer

staghound dog staning in the Yarra river. River bank behind shows tall eucalypts and greenery
Natures landscaping

If lockdown continues for much longer, I may well complete most of that list of outstanding jobs that has been hanging around, some for longer than I care to admit. When I go for my daily walks in the forest I notice what a superb landscaper nature is. She throws together trees and shrubs and rocks and delicate flowers to create a display of visual perfection that I strive to emulate in parts of my constructed garden.

There is a patch of gravel beside my house that has been largely unchanged for over twenty years as I have never been quite sure what to do with it. The area is in a cutting and shaded and damp in winter, dry in summer. I had an inspiration after discovering some discarded pavers beneath the house and set to work over two weekends.

I often listen to audio books whilst working in the garden and chose Seed and Dust. A Gardener’s Story by Marc Hamer. His story was the perfect companion. Told over a twelve month period when Marc tended elderly Miss Cashemere’s garden on her country estate, the story is a meditation on gardening, nature and life.

In my imagination, this life has been a path with many, many forks, each one a choice to be made. Each unchosen route fading from view as it became the past, its destination unknowable. No destination is really known until you arrive, and then it becomes merely a point along the way — a vague place rarely planned for, simply the start of another adventure. The only thing to do is be happy with the outcome, whatever it is. The path leads to the end, as all paths do.

The story meanders month by month through the seasons honing in on minute changes on the estate. Marc’s work in the garden reflects his love for nature and his distant yet intimate relationship with its owner who observes him and occasionally interacts with him is tentative yet tender. Reflections on nature are interspersed with Marc’s reflections on his own life and philosophical observations of humanity and what gardening has taught him about life. It is a beautifully written story. I really enjoyed listening to the rambling baritone of actor Owen Teale reading the audio.

By the time I got to the end I had fallen in love with the garden the man and the voice and started listening to it again.

Seed to Dust was shortlisted for the Wainwright Price in 2021 (winner to be announced next week on 7th September). I understand that the printed novel is beautifully illustrated and have ordered a copy for my shelves as well as one I have sent as a gift to someone I think will enjoy it also.