Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson ticked all my boxes when it comes to reading material. Historical fiction. Strong female characters. Set in France. WW1 to and beyond WW2. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading but the book just got better and better. I hated to finish. Never Anyone But You is based on the true story of two French women who meet as teenagers before the start of World War I. Fourteen-year-old Lucie Schwob has just returned from school in England and is introduced to seventeen-year-old Suzanne Malherbe in their hometown of Nantes in the Loire region of France. The story is written in the voice of Suzanne, the older and more conventional of the two. Lucie is high strung, creative, intense, and Jewish.
The two girls immediately become BFFs. They share somewhat bohemian ideas. Their spiritual symbiosis is quickly matched by their mutual and deep love for each other. There is no doubt in the minds of either girl that they were destined to be life partners. Over time, their relationship deepens even while separated when Suzanne attends art college in Nantes and Lucie studies at The Sorbonne in Paris. They eventually both choose Paris as the place where together they can lives their lives freely and without judgment. Their creative inclinations expand and define their social circle and before long they’re partying with the likes of Salvadore Dali, Pablo Picasso and Gertrude Stein.
Lucie’s mother had been committed to a mental institution with schizophrenia while Lucie was still a young girl and she had very little contact with her. As a result of this deprivation, Lucie always worried that the disease would afflict her but more importantly, it left her feeling unwanted and eternally fragile. In her attempts to redefine herself in the context of her relationship with Suzanne, she called herself Claude Cahun. She cropped her hair and began wearing trousers and men’s clothes. Suzanne also gave herself a professional name, Marcel Moore, but it never quite stuck the same way Claude’s new identity did.
Claude and Suzanne moved with the arts crowd in the years between the two wars in Paris. Allowances from their financially comfortable parents were supplemented with income from Claude’s writing and acting, and Suzanne’s artwork creating posters for the theatre. They were both keen photographers and produced many avant-garde photographic works, often of themselves. Paris life totally agreed with them, until it no longer did.
Seeking to recreate the joy they experienced while on vacation on the island of Jersey years earlier, they decided to make a permanent move to Jersey. The decision was in part influenced by the encroaching Nazi armies and their intolerance of homosexuals and particularly, Jews. They had also begun to tire of the hustle and pace of Paris and longed for privacy and a peaceful environment. They found a house overlooking the sea that they both loved and began a new life.
Their life was not without conflict and complications, however. Lucie/Claude had bisexual tendencies and sometimes was tempted to be unfaithful to Suzanne with men she met. They did stay together though, bound by their strong love and spiritual connection. Claude’s mental state was always precarious and suicide was a constant dark cloud over their heads. Living on Jersey was for the most part idyllic for them until the Germans arrived in 1941. What began as a minor inconvenience soon became a fight for life. Their way of dealing with the crisis was to conduct an underground psychological war against the enemy. They composed and printed anti-Nazi slogans and propaganda which they distributed without anyone’s knowledge, using their peculiar privacy and self-containment as a cover.
Never Anyone But You was an absolute joy to read. I’ve always found that time in France’s history to be particularly fascinating and living it through the eyes of Suzanne Malherbe, via the fictional pen of Rupert Thomson, took me to a time and place of endless drama. It soon had me Google-ing the two women to learn even more about their colourful lives. It also provides a somewhat philosophical look at the cycle of life and relationships as experienced by two intelligent and strong women. What more could anyone ask from a book? I loved it and I intend to read more by Rupert Thomson.
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