Marguerite Duras begins The Lover with the image of a 15 year-old girl, leaning on the rail of a ferry crossing the Mekong River. She’s a thin, wisp of a girl, pale and fragile and innocent, yet old before her time. She is old because of her unstable, insecure, unhappy mother. She is old because of her oldest brother’s vicious jealousy, his irresponsible gambling, his caring for no one but himself. She is old because of the deep connection between herself and her other brother, the middle child, too sensitive for the world he inhabits and certainly for living with his older brother. She is old because she is white—and therefore socially above the “natives” in colonial Cambodia and Vietnam—but poor (the death of her father left the family nearly without income and her older brother gambles away what wealth they have). They always eat, she says, but she makes little other claim to being taken care of.
Into this milieu comes the son of a local, ethnic Chinese millionaire. He sees the girl on the ferry and asks her if he can give her a ride to school. So begins their relationship. Every day he drives her to and from school. Soon he is bathing her, pouring cool water from a jar over her, and then carrying her to their bed. Sometimes he takes her whole family out for dinner and drinks where her family ignores their benefactor as completely as they eat the food.
Published in French in post-colonial 1984, the novel is set entirely in an era when traveling to the colonies—by ship, the only real option—was an exotic adventure, a lark for the upper classes. Race and class are always a part of the story, though almost never mentioned. Most of the story takes place in Cambodia and Vietnam, and characters are not named there; it is simply her brother, her mother, the man from Cholon. Only when referring to a later time, in Paris, does any one get a name and there it is two women who live in Paris but are not French—they are American or English. They make lasting impressions on the narrator because they are exotic and lovely in ways that the narrator does not know. I believe, in fact, that she loves those two women as she never loves her always-nameless Chinese lover. Yes, she loves him in a certain way that is about need and even desire; but she admires and respects those women in some way very different and more profound.
The book ends symmetrically with the now 17 year-old girl leaning on the rail of the ship taking her to France, never to return; she watches her lover’s parked black limo slowly disappear into the distance. He visits her once in Paris, many years later; he tells her he still loves her as he always has. But the past is the past and they do not even try to recapture what they once had.
The Lover is an imagistic novel, written mostly in set pieces of a few paragraphs. With each little section, Duras powerfully conveys the slow tragedy that life’s complications can be, the sense of inevitability we sometimes have, the way that family and social conventions and structures limit the ways we act, and the way that despite our best efforts our feelings are not limited or restricted at all.