The book, which I’m proud to say I read in the original French, begins with a semi-humourous description of Nathalie, the main character, with allusions to fanciful generalizations about anyone bearing that name as well as specific descriptions of the pretty young woman who is the Nathalie of the story. Nathalie meets Francois by chance in the street, he speaks to her even though they have not met before, and soon they become lovers, and then a married couple. We learn about Francois’ character and thoughts, his hobbies and habits, at least as much as we learn about Nathalie’s, and we witness the pleasant weekly routine of the young couple.
Nathalie finds employment in a financial company, and Charles, the boss of the organization, is so taken with her photo on her application form that he insists on interviewing her himself. She is given a responsible position, and for five years she and Francois are happy and doing well, but suddenly everything changes when Francois is run over and killed while out running one Sunday morning.
In between the various segments of the book the author places comments, quotes, stage directions, statistical facts, or incidental comments that often bear little relation to the flow of the narrative, and in fact serve to distract the reader from the story and the characters we are reading about. Even the title of the book, ‘La delicatesse,’ is discussed in an abstract way and its dictionary definition examined. We are given to understand that the word can also be used to describe Nathalie.
Naturally, it takes a long time for Nathalie to get over the loss of her husband and return to work. Her colleagues do their best to treat her with sympathy and understanding, though the knowledge that the beautiful young woman who works with them is now unattached arouses their curiosity and interest. Charles, who is married but is in love with Nathalie, invites her out to dinner. She accepts, but rejects his amourous advances, causing Charles to become confused, depressed and bewildered.
One day, one of Nathalie’s colleagues, a young man called Markus who is a member of the team she heads, enters her office to discuss some aspect of their work, and is taken aback when she suddenly kisses him. This causes him considerable dismay and confusion, and some time later, after careful consideration, he decides to march into her office and kiss her in the same manner. Their relationship develops. They dine together one evening and although he is not very attractive she find his company entertaining. Their colleagues gossip about their relationship, and the rumour reaches Charles, who tries to ascertain what attracts Nathalie to the unassuming young man, even inviting him to an embarrassing and unsuccessful dinner one evening.
Charles’ jealousy drives him to arrange for Markus to be transferred to a branch of the firm in Sweden. When Nathalie learns of this she is furious, abandons her post and takes a train into the country. Markus is told by Charles about his transfer and immediately resigns. Nathalie sends Markus a text message telling him where she is. He takes the next train to join her, and together they drive in the rain to visit her grandmother, Madeleine, in her house in the country.
Markus and Nathalie spend the night together in Madeleine’s house, and their relationship seems to be developing into a romantic attachment. Throughout their time together, Nathalie and Markus have been engaged in a delicate dance of finding a connection with one another, albeit in a very different way from the approach adopted by either Francois or Charles.
Charles goes home to his wife and tries to make an effort to renew their relationship. Markus and Nathalie play hide-and-seek in the garden of Madeleine’s house, just as Nathalie once did with her cousins in her childhood. The two appear to be destined to have a happy and loving relationship.
It’s all very French.