Philippe Besson’s “Lie With Me: A Novel,” a bestseller in France, is a devastating read about first love.
It’s entirely possible to read this short (150-page) book — translated to English by actor, author and polymath Molly Ringwald — in one sitting. And, given the propulsive narrative, that is perhaps best. The novel is so irresistible, it can’t be put down.
The story opens in 2007, when the narrator (Philippe) sees a man he thinks is — but can’t be — Thomas Andrieu, a classmate he loved (and frequently made love to) as a teenager in 1984. This encounter prompts Philippe to thinks back wistfully, à la Proust, on his past and his clandestine relationship with Thomas.
As teenagers, the young men were quite different. Philippe was bookish, a teacher’s son who was slightly alienated from his classmates in rural Barbezieux, for being so smart. Thomas is the shaggy-haired, dark-eyed son of a farmer. (It’s easy to mentally cast Jérémie Elkaïm and Stéphane Rideau, from the seductive coming-of-age film “Come Undone,” as the characters, though in the novel, Besson likens Thomas to C. Thomas Howell’s Ponyboy Curtis in “The Outsiders.”)
The young men stare at each other across the playground at high school, and while Philippe thinks it’s a one-way desire, he’s thrilled and surprised when Thomas invites him to lunch. They meet at an out-of-the-way bar on the outskirts of town so their rendezvous won’t be discovered.
The teens soon sneak off to an area in the school gym, where they make love for the first time. It’s a sexy tryst, and Besson captures the intimacy, longing, fear and desire of this unexpected relationship.
Teenage Philippe overanalyzes the relationship, of course. But his crippling doubt about his first sexual liaison is pitched at a level that makes it heartfelt, not cloying. He develops palpable anxiety as he counts the days until Thomas’ next signal, and the chance to have another erotic encounter and create deeper intimacy. His memory of Thomas’ body — the moles on his back, the texture of his penis — conveys the lasting imprint this first love has left on him.
The teens communicate through discretely passed notes, and everything is done according to Thomas’ instructions and desires. Philippe is so quickly and easily consumed by his “imbecilic burning love,” so enchanted and petrified, that he allows Thomas to control their relationship for fear of losing him.
But Thomas is not cruel; he “sees the person Philippe will become,” which both confounds and empowers the author.
Besson recounts the affair in a confessional tone that makes readers hang on every word. And as he describes their quick, rough and tender sex, it is impossible not to fall under the book’s spell. It may be an idealized memory — Philippe admits that he “lies” and “invents with authenticity” — but the details are striking and believable. Philippe is moved by Thomas’ shyness, and readers will be too.
He drinks in the few tidbits Thomas tells him about religion and his family as he rests his head on his lover’s naked chest. He tries to imagine Thomas’ life, and cogitates on his classmate’s inability to express the fact that he “prefers boys.” Even Philippe’s imagination about Thomas is obsessive.
Yet Thomas awakens something in Philippe that goes beyond their romantic intimacy. Philippe starts embracing gay culture, appreciating Patrice Chéreau’s film “L’Homme Blessé” (“The Wounded Man”) about a young man discovering his sexuality, and novels by the gay writer Hervé Guibert. The affair actualizes Philippe but not Thomas, who prefers to stay hidden.
When Philippe spies on Thomas interacting with a girl at a party, he experiences painful jealousy and confronts the very real fear of losing his lover. Their relationship is short-lived, and their last moment together is absolutely heartbreaking.
The last third of “Lie With Me” returns to 2007, when Philippe confronts the man who reminds him of Thomas. It is Thomas’ son, Lucas — and so begins an exchange that divulges the impact of the teenagers’ love decades later.
It’s almost a spoiler to reveal that much, but the final two sections of the book, which take place nine years apart, are gripping. Besson builds tension inexorably as Lucas and Philippe chat and disclose facts about their lives and what happened to Thomas after the teens went their separate ways.
It is devastating.
“Lie With Me” is the must-read gay novel of the summer.