Nemirovsky does such a masterful job of recreating the world of narcissist Gladys Eysenach that her protagonist is nearly repulsive to study in her self-obsession, neglect, and chronic manipulation of others. Though the novel begins in France at a murder trial, where the aging but still beautiful Gladys stands accused of murdering twenty-year-old student Bernard Martin, the evolution of the distorted personality is revealed in the following chapters, from her first heady experience of the power of beauty and the ability to make men dance to her every whim.
The night of her first ball, Gladys discovers how easily men, even sophisticated gentlemen, fall in thrall to her astonishing beauty, making sport of her first conquest in the excitement of the moment. Later, marriage and the love of a man she considers her equal allows Gladys the only truly intimate exchange of her life, even that constricted by his domination and her apparent acquiescence. Gladys never really experiences any real development of an interior life, governed always by the shallow satisfaction of image, blind to the richer territory available to her. She is addicted to the glamour and sparkle wealth brings to a beautiful woman, the few demands made by men happy to bask in her attention and sexual favors. Dwarfed emotionally, Gladys crosses continents collecting paramours and admirers with one anxious eye on the passage of time.
The only opportunity for a more fulfilling existence with her daughter, Marie-Therese, is squandered by Gladys’s unremitting narcissism. Unwilling to tolerate the chronological reality of time, Gladys refuses to let Marie-Therese mature past early adolescence, a mistake that plants the seed of tragedy and ultimately leads to Gladys’s appearance before the court for murder. A master of denial and obfuscation, her love affairs become more frantic, more frequent as the years spin by. She is terrified to marry her latest love, Count Monti, lest she be forced to reveal her true age on the marriage certificate.
Hers is a vapid, unsatisfactory life, one with few friends and many lovers, albeit in diminishing numbers and with questionable motives. With a tragic denial of the daughter who loved her without reservation and the eventual reckoning with time. Gladys would rather die—or be convicted of murder—than be exposed for her age. The façade becomes the cage, memories a poor substitute for reality. Few know her dark secret, her true age, as Gladys scurries from continent to continent in search of pleasure.
Born in the late nineteenth century, Gladys’s extraordinary beauty is remarkable for its longevity. What miracles might she have enjoyed with the advantages of modern cosmetic surgery? Just before she fires the bullet that extinguishes Barnard Martin’s short life, he stares at her with hate-filled eyes, uttering the damning, “You are a monster.” A self-created monster whose greatest flaw amid that gift of heavenly flesh is the inability to tell the truth. A monster whose greatest enemy is time.