Sébastien Japrisot

A Very Long Engagement

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A Very Long Engagement Summary

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A Very Long Engagement is a 1991 romantic war novel by French author and screenwriter Sébastien Japrisot. Set in France during World War I, it follows Mathilde Donnay, who doubts the veracity of a report that her fiancé, Manech, has been killed in combat. Despite her inability to walk, she uses her investigative skills to gather information about his location, also unearthing the French government’s complicity in a corrupt scheme that sentenced soldiers, including Manech, to the no man’s land on the front lines. The story is shaped by a series of clues that Mathilde discovers about what befell her fiancé between two days and two nights in January 1917.

The story begins when Mathilde is contacted by a patient who is dying from the Spanish flu at a nearby hospital. The patient, Daniel Esperanza, reveals his knowledge that Manech was declared killed in action, alleging that the report is false. He relates that he was forced into the no man’s land at a station called Bingo Crepuscule after being accused of self-mutilation with four other men: a hardy farmer, a pimp, a pacifist, and a carpenter. He claims that Manech met the same fate, but survived. Esperanza gives Mathilde four letters, one from each of the other soldiers, which they wrote to their families.

Mathilde hires a private investigator and a lawyer and tries to contact the families. From their correspondence, she begins to glean information about the events that took place between January 6 and 8, 1917. She visits cemeteries and even battlefields to assist her investigation. Mathilde’s lawyer doubts that the soldiers, including Manech, survived: most likely, they were pardoned and thrown back into the fray, where they ultimately died. Mathilde, however, chooses to stick to her evidence. In one of her letters, she finds a reference to a stamp and a statement that her fiancé is alive at its time of writing on January 8. She tracks down the stamp, confirming the letter’s truth.

Next, Mathilde receives a letter from the secret lover of her fiancé’s best friend, another one of the soldiers sent to no man’s land. Using this letter, she searches for a pair of German boots that were traded back and forth at Bingo Crepuscule. The search leads her to their final owner: a man who carried Manech from no man’s land to safety in the French trenches. In a letter from another condemned man to his wife, Mathilde finds a code that reveals the identity of the man who carried Manech out of battle and, therefore, must know his fate. She tracks him down in a small French village, Bernay. The man suggests that Manech is probably alive.

At last, Mathilde discovers that Manech is alive and has adopted a new name, Jean Desrochelles. However, he now suffers amnesia and does not remember the war or his life before it. He lives with the mother of the real Jean Desrochelles, a soldier killed in the war. After the battle, their ID tags were swapped; Jean’s mother decided to go along with it, since she yearned for someone to take care of. Mathilde finds Manech and Mrs. Desrochelles. When she approaches him, he stares at her without recognition. After Mathilde talks to him, he seems to like her, hinting that he may remember their past life or that their romance might start anew. A Very Long Engagement’s ambiguous ending frustrates its protagonist’s hope that things might return to normal after the war, but suggests that, though many of its victims have transformed, they might go on to live happy lives.