three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
21-Mar-Apr-2006
By: 
Hazel Rowley
user_rating: 
0

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre

A-Tete-a-TeteIt was to be a new kind of bond, one founded on intellectual compatibility, a refusal of monogamy, and unflinching honesty. That Simone de Beauvoir (1908–1986) and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) achieved two out of the three testifies to the strength of their beliefs. From their days as philosophy students in Paris, the pair formed a lifelong partnership that saw the production of seminal existentialist and feminist works such as No Exit and The Second Sex. It also left behind its share of broken hearts. Rowley forgoes a traditional academic study to explore the emotional costs and benefits of this exceptional relationship.
HarperCollins. 416 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0060520590

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"To her credit, Rowley consistently keeps their romance in context, setting it against the buttoned-up 1950s and the let’s-try-anything 1960s and ‘70s. … Tête-à-Tête shows that she is … fascinated by the innovative couple, but she doesn’t let that cushion the more jagged edges of this tale." Carol Iaciofano

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he surprise page-turner of the season. … With her use of well-chosen quotations from letters, memoirs, novels, essays, and interviews, Rowley captures not just her subjects’ sexual shenanigans but also their voices, their unflagging work ethic and their drive to unfetter mankind from self-imposed limitations." Heller McAlpin

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"It is also a vivid story of these ‘secondary’ affairs—sufficiently gossipy and prurient to hold any reader’s attention. Sometimes it is hard keeping track of all the men and women lovers in the Sartre circle, but that is a minor criticism of this most entrancing book." Phyllis Meras

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Here we find an ugly, walleyed existentialist philosopher, the elegantly beautiful author of The Second Sex, and the Gallic equivalent of a bevy of young starlets who share the bed of one or the other—or sometimes both. Readers will turn these pages alternately mesmerized and appalled." Michael Dirda

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Rowley … manages to recapture the charm and the brilliance of the relationship in its early stages, which makes her story all the more poignant and depressing." William Grimes

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Rowley is an engrossing narrator. Her book tells Beauvoir and Sartre’s repellent, inspiring, and unlikely tale more completely and concisely than it has ever been told before." Christina Nehring

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading Hazel Rowley’s account of the intertwined lives is exhilarating and exhausting. … Perhaps the greatest contribution of Rowley’s book is putting to rest the canard that Beauvoir benefited more from the lifelong relationship than did Sartre, who did what he could during his lifetime to demonstrate the equality of the partnership." Steve Weinberg

Critical Summary

The Washington Post calls Tête-à-Tête a "highbrow Francophile edition of US Weekly"; most critics seem to welcome an opportunity to indulge in scholarly fluff. That reviewers devote the bulk of their column-inches to thrilling over de Beauvoir and Sartre says much for Rowley’s choice of material as well as her skill as a storyteller. Whether they find this storied relationship despicable or admirable, the critics praise Rowley, the biographer of Richard Wright (Richard Wright: His Life and Times) for her skillful prose and, one imagines, her prurient interest as well.