Book review: Get Well Soon by Marie-Sabine Roger

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

 

Reading a book after watching the movie or TV show is always an interesting exercise (the same applies, but in different ways, to the reverse).

Not necessarily because one will be good and one will be bad, but purely because it is always fascinating to see how two creative minds, operating in entirely different mediums, interpret and articulate the same story.

Get Well Soon (Bon Rétablissement) by Marie-Sabine Roger, translated by Frank Wynne, is one of those rare books read after watching the film, and far from diminishing it, the book comes out even richer and more fulsome with a post-movie viewing.

Not, I suspect, that it would have suffered from it standing on its own two literary feet, a masterfully emotionally-resonant in anyone’s language.

“Thinking is a morbid preoccupation that I prefer to avoid in most cases. Especially given that, since in here there’s no escape mechanism, I contemplate my navel, my thoughts frantically spinning like a crazed hamster in its wheel. Me, me, my life, my achievements.” (P. 17)

A slender book that runs to just under 220 pages – the story is perfectly told and just the right length but the world Rogers created is so beguilingly well-wrought that you want to remain in for much longer – Get Well Soon is told, almost exclusively for a final few pages, from the perspective of a 67 year-old patient, Jean-Pierre who ends up in a hospital after an accident on a bridge catapults him into the Seine in Paris at 5am.

Pulled inert from the dark waters by a rent boy who stays with his unexpected charge until the paramedics arrive, widower Jean-Pierre, a grumpy malcontent who has no friends beyond his garrulous, bon vivant childhood pal Serge, with whom he has been reunited thanks to a social media site, is none too pleased to wake up in a hospital room, trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

Possessed of a dry wit, and the kind of self-awareness that means he knows he can be insufferable and so modulates his grumpiness around people he needs like brightly-effervescent head nurse Myriam, Jean-Pierre, despite himself, begins to form bonds with the policeman investigating his case, Maxime (who becomes like a son to the unwilling patient), the rent boy Camille (who is far more complex a person than Jean-Pierre’s prejudices allow for at first) and Maëva, a 14 year-old girl who’s presence in the hospital is a mystery until well into the book.

 

(image via Normandy Tinchebray)
The book has been adapted into a warm and entertaining 2014 film, known in English-speaking countries as Get Well Soon(image via Normandy Tinchebray)

 

In many ways, it’s a fairly-straight forward oft-told tale that you might be tempted to consign to the Pollyanna/Anna of Green Gables school of delightfully redemptive storytelling.

While there are certainly elements of these kinds of stories in Roger’s wittily heartwarming tale, the book is far too amusingly caustic to be treated as too much of a warm and fuzzy story.

Jean-Pierre, for all his many failings and foibles, is actually a decent guy, something he admits to almost immediately in the book even as he recounts the many ways he was not an ideal son, husband or friend, and its this innate decency, filtered through a doesn’t suffer fools gladly and says so mentality, that ultimately makes him so damn likable.

Everything from the state of hospital food to the complete lack of privacy as a patient to the stultifying boredom of lying near flat on your back for weeks at a time, is addressed by Jean-Pierre in a humourously-incisive manner.

“‘OK I won’t say anymore. In any case, we’ve got his details on file, if there are any problems it won’t be hard to track him down. I just hope you’re not in for a nasty surprise.’
‘Let me tell you something: if you spend your life trying to avoid ‘nasty surprises’, you miss out on the good ones too.’
He smiles.” (P. 195)

So too are his internal monologues about the people he comes to know; sure he’s a mite critical of them at times but he is also willing to admit when they have grown on him, and it’s his growth as a character, or more correctly, his willingness to access those parts of his character he often ignores that form much of the emotional core of this vibrantly alive book.

Jean-Pierre is, in many ways, an everyman, someone who has reached a point in his life where the possibility of change is beyond him, and change he most certainly does, but who is acutely aware he has frittered away much of his life with poor decisions and even poorer relationship maintenance.

Sitting in the hospital bed for as he does, waiting for various doctors and other health professionals to poke, prod and advise him, he has plenty of time to ruminate on what went wrong and if it’s possible to fix anything at this point in his life.

The author avoids any cheesy road-to-Damascus moments – it would never have rung true with Jean-Pierre’s brutally self-critical approach – choosing instead to give the curmudgeonly patient a slow thawing of many of the strategies and assumptions he has employed to get him through life.

It’s this groundedness, couched in some of the funniest, most self-aware and moving observations you’ll read anymore that make Get Well Soon such a delight to read and make you wish you could spend just a little bit longer in the world of Jean-Pierre whose life may not be so blighted as he seems to think it is.

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