I Love You Too Much, by Alicia Drake, is a powerful tale of the loneliness of unrequited love. Set in contemporary Paris, its protagonist is Paul, the only son of materially successful beautiful people whose lives revolve around their quest for superficial perfection. Paul’s maman is Séverine who travels the world for her design company. His papa is Philippe who makes his money through financial deals. Both had high hopes for their son, moving house that he may get into a school they could then boast to family and friends that he attended. Despite extensive tutoring Paul failed to gain a place – his parents reacting as to a death. Soon after they separated.
The story opens with the birth of Paul’s sister, Lou, whose papa is Gabriel, an aspiring rock star. Like Paul, Lou will be looked after by Cindy, the family’s Filipino help. Unlike his parents, Cindy allows Paul the comfort food he craves, his only solace from the knowledge that he is a disappointment in every aspect of his life. Paul is regularly made aware that his family cannot boast of his achievements, as their relatives and friends do of their offspring.
When a new girl, Scarlett, arrives at Paul’s school the boys are taken by her brazen attitude and exhibitionism. Soon she is going out with cool kid Stéphane, making out in front of everyone, posting photos of their encounters on social media. When Séverine decides to indulge in a weekend of thalassotherapy, Paul refuses to attend the usual kid’s club at the resort and hangs out with Scarlett who is also there with her parents. They both come from families of high achievers they have failed to please.
Back in Paris, Scarlett starts to spend time with Paul after school. Her friendship is a small light in a life that grows ever more bleak. Philippe, whose family is crushing in their criticism of any who do not conform to their narrow expectations, is caught in compromising circumstances. Séverine is growing tired of supporting Gabriel who is looking elsewhere for his kicks.
The story portrays three generations of admiration seekers and the damage their incessant demands wreak. In gorgeous, devastating prose the reader is led through Paul’s lonely life, his longing for acceptance and support in a world that admires only perceived beauty and the trappings of conspicuous success. He can talk to Scarlett but not about everything. Likewise she is keeping secrets from him.
In the opening pages Paul describes his Paris:
“There are no dirty shoes in the 6ème where I live. There is nowhere to get dirty. There are only pavements and the Jardin du Luxembourg. There is grass in the jardin, but you are not allowed to walk on it.
My Paris is the one same street between school and home. It is grey apartment buildings and heavy wooden doors that you step through into dark courtyards, still and damp where the ivy grows. […] It is empty corridors of polished parquet four floors up and my feet not touching the ground. […] It is many lives lived alone.”
The desire for veneration leads each character to follow destructive paths, and then on to more of the same, their delusions ingrained. Paul recognises the hypocrisy of the demands being made of him but is rendered powerless by his desire for acceptance by those he loves. When Scarlett too appears to turn away, his misery is complete.
This is a stunning work, intoxicating and heartbreaking. A recommended read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.