The Waitress Was New is the first of French author Dominique Fabre’s novels to be translated into English. The novel is narrated by Pierre, a 56-year-old bartender who has been tending bar his entire adult life, more or less, and has spent the last eight years working at Le Cercle, a typical French café situated in the Parisian suburb of Asnières.
I’ve been fifty-six for three months now. My last birthday didn’t really get to me, but my fifty-fourth almost threw me into the Seine, if you’ll pardon the expression. I took a half-day off to see a prostrate specialist and get my free checkup from Social Security, they couldn’t find anything wrong. That filled me with joy for two days, just long enough to pick up a nasty hangover. I thought about my dream again, then pushed it away with a shrug as I served a beer-and-Pincon to a guy from the MMA insurance office on Maurice-Bokanovksi, he has a pointy beard and a black suit. Sabrina calls him Landru. And after that I just kept right on going. Fortunately the new girl knew her job, because without the boss around it was hard work manning the bar. Amédée was in his unusual good mood, and Madeleine had to get after him a couple of times, nothing terribly serious, but the pass-through’s too small, the dining room was noisy that day. The boss’s wife wasn’t letting it get to her, she stayed behind the cash register the whole time, looking like she was thinking of something else, probably wondering where he could have got to, and keeping an eye on things like she always did, between chats with the regulars. Once or twice I caught her giving the ceiling a blank stare, the boss had it repainted two summers before, during the August closing. Since I hadn’t gone away on vacation that year—or the year before or the year after, for that matter—he’d asked me to keep tabs on the work, and I did. She had the dreamy look of a boss and wife whose marriage was heading steadily downhill if you asked me.
The novel follows Pierre’s life over the course of a few days, and opens with the opening of Le Cercle. The normal waitress, Sabrina, is out with the flu, and shortly after introducing the new waitress, the boss, Henri, sneaks off. Pierre and Henri’s wife Isabelle, who works the register, assume Henri has gone to spend time with his mistress, the ‘sick’ waitress Sabrina.
Fabre seems more interested in investigating the inner life of Pierre—albeit in the limited way that Pierre, who spends his life listening rather than talking, is able to describe his thoughts—and painting a small portrait of a group of working class people than in creating a complex plot, so there isn’t a lot of action in this slim volume. Pierre makes the briefest of enquiries when Henri doesn’t show up for a few days, and then comforts Isabelle. He has couscous with his long-time friend and fellow bartender, Roger, and keeps the café open in Henri’s absence for a few days. He has a fleeting interest in a couple of different women, but seems resigned to being alone at his age. He contemplates retiring, but discovers that he’s a few years away from qualifying for a full pension.
As I said, there aren’t a lot of fireworks, but as a portrait of a Pierre and his ‘everyman’ life, the novel is a success. The reserved, melancholy, and resigned tone that Fabre strikes is maintained beautifully throughout the book, and he has given Pierre just enough wit to lighten things up from time to time. And, in keeping with the ‘slice of life’ feel of the book, the slight twist at the end doesn’t bring any closure, rather it opens further possibilities which remain unexplored. This is a quiet book, but one that promises to stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it.
Overall, The Waitress Was New is well worth the long afternoon it takes to read. Hopefully, Archipelago plans to publish more of his novels in the future.