Review by Allison Slegenthaler
The central problem with Underground Time, Delphine de Vigan’s 2009 novel, is that it is trying to be too many things at once. Is it a philosophical meditation on isolation? A romance? An examination of bullying in the workplace? All these options remain on the table for the duration, and the book suffers for its lack of commitment.
Underground Time follows two Parisians through a single day, the twentieth of May: Mathilde, a businesswoman, and Thibault, a paramedic. Both are deeply unhappy with their lives, dragged along by the bustle of modern life and the loneliness of the city they inhabit. Much of the book is spent taking a long, slow path through the minds of Mathilde and Thibault, revisiting memories which recall better, more connected times in their lives. Thibault is a bachelor, Mathilde a widow, and essentially they are loners. No friends are mentioned, no meaningful adult relationships endure – Thibault’s lover, the distant Lila, is gone within the first thirty pages, and Mathilde’s most enduring connections are to her young sons.
At the same time, there’s a constant thread running through both stories implying that today, the twentieth of May, is the day both Mathilde and Thibault will meet the one person who can fix their lives forever. It’s not much of a leap on the reader’s part to see that we’re supposed to want them to get together by the end, but unfortunately this facet of the plot feels artificially tacked on. The real thrust of Underground Time, and the aspect of it worth focussing on, hinges on how these two people, who live very different lives with distinct concerns and motivations, will find their ways out of the holes they’ve landed in.
Mathilde’s story is really what holds the narrative together: it’s Gaslight updated for the boardroom, and the slow lurch towards the climax is the best writing de Vigan offers (she has an irritating habit of peppering her writing with incomplete sentences, breaking up the flow). Jacques, Mathilde’s boss, is slowly removing all traces of Mathilde’s presence from their office while pretending nothing is wrong, and she struggles to understand his motivations and to re-assert herself as a meaningful contributor to her workplace.
Thibault’s half of the book – which chronicles the various emergency calls he responds to during the day, visiting other lonely and desperate people in Paris – is not really as arresting or salient at Mathilde’s, especially (I suspect) for anyone interested in CWWS. I would have preferred to have the entirety of Underground Time devoted to Mathilde, especially as Thibault turns out to be, essentially, a cipher. Underground Time never really stops being about Mathilde, even when she’s absent from the page, and the words spent away from her feel wasted. If anything, the device that keeps threatening to bring Mathilde and Thibault together detracts from rather than enhances the plot, and any nods to romance only feel perfunctory.
Underground Time has the germ of a good novel in it, but unfortunately that germ didn’t quite develop the way it might have. Read it for Mathilde’s extraordinary poise under pressure; skip the rest.