You may know her from the feminist manifesto The Second Sex. Or perhaps you're familiar with her circle of intellectuals (Albert Camus, Nelson Algren, Arthur Koestler) or her lover Jean Paul Sartre. But The Mandarins is much more than an autobiographical novel and a story of intellectual society and struggle after the occupation in Paris. You don’t need to know Simone de Beauvoir was a great philosopher. You don’t need to know about the relationship between her and Sartre, or the affairs. You don’t need to know about existentialist philosophy or postwar Europe. If you do, it may make the reading more meaningful. If you don’t, it will not take away from the story one bit. This is a story about friendship, loyalty, war and the consequences, the roles of women, marriage, death, breakdowns, and the breakdowns and death of marriage. It is about making hard decisions and rebuilding from the ruins. It is a love story.
It is a lengthy novel. This would usually have me muttering “still?” while madly flipping pages to see how far till the next chapter. (Don’t do this, by the way. The chapters are horrendously long.) My copy was an enormous first American edition hardback over 600 pages, and after dragging it around with me for weeks, it began to weigh what felt like that many pounds. But the heft was worth it, for I was transported during bus commutes and on those few cherished evenings reclining on the chaise longue. I haven’t had that experience with a novel in a long time. At first, the switch of narrators was jolting, but I think it contributed to keeping me interested and engaged in the long run. I found I actually cared about Anne, Paula, Henri, Robert, and the others. I was fascinated by their world and the choices they were making.
There are many elements that could bring you to this novel and keep you there…the setting, the era, the voyeuristic autobiographical aspect, the intellectual society, politics, ideology, love, or merely the writing. Whatever reason you decide to pick up The Mandarins, you will find it is not so easy to put down again. The characters will stay with you for a long while.