Posy Simmonds has taken the plot of Madame Bovary and re-imagined it in late 90s France, using her characters to comment on dissatisfaction, emotional manipulation, and culture clash.
As Gemma Bovery opens, Raymond Joubert, local Normandy baker, tells us that Gemma Bovery is dead. He then narrates her life through reading (and translating, since he is French and she is most definitely English) her stolen diaries. His voyeurism infects us all; we want to know how and why she died as much as he does.
Gemma, trying to get over her seductive co-worker Patrick, took up with the unassuming Charlie when he nursed her through the flu even though he’d just met her. She hated her life, so she seized at him as an escape, never thinking about what it would be, only what it wouldn’t be. He’s so relaxed that he still does whatever his ex-wife tells him and ignores her carping or any sort of conflict. He doesn’t seem to show much emotion at all, really, making him a poor choice for the dramatic Gemma.
She dislikes children and family (the reader suspects because they take time and attention away from her). When she can’t stand Charlie continuing to visit his kids, she drags him with her to France. She envisions living in nature and a charming cottage and “real” bread. That’s when Joubert first meets her, finding her passionate and sexy. They had in common leaving big cities for the country (in his case, after being laid off from his editorial job in Paris).
But the cottage isn’t what Gemma expected when she dreamed of an idealized country life. The season changes, just a few months later, and she’s bored. Everything’s so much work, and seeing the same people, and nothing to do but cook and eat. The house is old and needs repair. The other British imports, neighbors, are rich and successful, making her jealous. Charlie takes well to the country, emphasizing how different they really are. Most of all, he bores her, and she takes a local lover. Joubert observes it all. He wants the affair to be about passion and undying romance, like the original novel (he’s something of a literary snob), but it’s all too tawdry and just about the sex. Modern, not for the ages. Yet he feels privileged to be the only one who knows, until he starts meddling.
Posy Simmonds’ style is unique. Her pages combine the best of both comics and illustrated text, emphasizing the story’s origin in a novel through wordy passages. But her illustrations convey the emotional moments, showing how the characters feel and react. Her soft linework makes even the over-reaching Gemma or the cuckolded Charlie lovely. It’s the detail that makes the story real, as Simmonds draws it — the designer labels, the fancy underwear, the specifics of Patrick’s career as food critic, the recipes Gemma cooks for a dinner party, the ridiculous meaningless things people talk about when socializing.
From the beginning, it’s morbid curiosity that ensnares the reader. Just what happened to Gemma? By midpoint, it’s engrossing, even watching people make stupid wrong decisions, it’s a page-turner. By the end, I’m wondering about Joubert. He makes so much happen and keeps inserting himself in the story because he prefers literature to life. I would love to see this story retold from Gemma’s point of view, where Joubert would be a creepy meddling stalker who sends anonymous poison-pen letters out of jealousy. In this parody, few characters come out well, and the true end is silly, a let-down, just like life. Literature has reason; life has humor in spite of itself.