Saturday, June 03, 2023

Annie Ernaux Buys Groceries

"Here, existing together on three levels, are all the shops and payable services that a given population is likely to need: a supercenter, fashion boutiques, hair salons, a medical center and pharmacies, a daycare center, fast food restaurants, cigarette-magazine-newspaper vendors, etc. There are free restrooms, and wheelchairs on loan.  (Annie Ernaux, Look at the Lights, My Love, p. 10).  

"In the world of the superstore and the free-market economy, loving children means buying them as many things as possible." (p. 21). 

Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2022, so of course her minor works are quickly being translated into English. Look at the Lights, My Love is a very short piece of 60 pages, published as a stand-alone kindle book (at full kindle price, by the way). It's a diary of her trips to the superstore, a huge supermarket with much more merchandise than most American supermarkets. She made the observations during the span of roughly a year. When I purchased this book  (at full kindle price, by the way), I was expecting something more but I blame myself for not paying enough attention and then being disappointed. 

I enjoyed one scene where another shopper recognized her as a famous author:

"At the checkout, where quite a few people are waiting, a customer with a wheeled shopping basket offers me her spot. As I vigorously decline (do I look that tired? that old?), she smiles and says she knows my writing. We converse about the store, about the children, plentiful on Wednesdays. Placing my items on the conveyer belt, I think a little uneasily that she is going to look at what I’ve bought. Every item suddenly takes on loaded meaning, reveals my lifestyle. A bottle of champagne, two bottles of wine, fresh milk and organic Emmental, crustless sandwich bread, Sveltesse yogurt, kibble for spayed and neutered cats, English ginger jam. It is my turn to be observed, I am an object. (p. 46).

Even though Ernaux also writes a bit about the parking lot, the book store, the newsstand, and a few other peripheral businesses, this is actually a book about groceries and above all, about her fellow shoppers. It acknowledges that both poor and rich people need groceries, and shop at this store. It mentions that clothing sold in the clothing department included garments made at the sweat shop in India where a large number of people died in a major accident during the time she was journaling her visits there. It comments about the advertising posters throughout the store, for example, one that the claimed a portion of meat was less than 100 grams; she notes that this wouldn't be very satisfying, but would end up being rather expensive for a limited budget. 

A few mentions of famous French writers were amusing:

"I don’t see Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, or Françoise Sagan doing their shopping in a superstore; Georges Perec yes, but I may be wrong about that." (p. 35). 
"Nothing has changed since Émile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise; women are always the primary—consenting?—targets of commerce." (p. 51). 

I've read a lot of books about grocery stores in the US, but never one like this which is entirely personal experiences. It's interesting but not especially original, profound, or political. I guess. I think I need to read something else to understand why this author won the Nobel.

Review © 2023 mae sander 



eileeninmd said...


I am pretty sure I have never read a book on grocery shopping. I guess my food shop trips are not very interesting. Take care, have a great weekend.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I don't think I was expecting a Nobel Prize winner to write about her experiences shopping.

And now I'm intrigued. Annie Ernaux writes truth, and she writes with truth about common female experiences in the contemporary world. I want to know more.

Jenn Jilks said...

I guess it goes to the 'write what you know' philosophy!

anno said...

Maybe a bit thin on connecting significance with observations... but, wow, I'd read this one just for the title.

Bill said...

Sounds like a good read.

Claudia said...

In interesting look at what seems to be a very uninteresting subject. Maybe her other books are more worthwhile? On the subject of "Foreign Bodies", this was a quite ground shaking and revealing report to the UN: