Agnès Riva: Love, an Overview

In her first novel, Agnès Riva tells the story of an adulterous relationship through the banal, impersonal places where the two lovers meet. A work written without emotion, recently translated into English, with clear nods to Annie Ernaux.
© Francesca Mantovani

Her name is Ema, just one letter away from Flaubert’s heroine. His name is Paul, but he is often referred to simply as “the man.” We know very little about them, besides the fact that they have jobs at a labor court and met through work. Both are married, and their extramarital relationship appears to be perfectly defined. At least, this is what Paul tells Ema at the start of their affair, as he is someone accustomed to adultery. In the reassuring driver’s seat of his car, an extension of his home, he carelessly lets his hand caress the young woman’s leg, as if he owned her. Ema, who loves Françoise Sagan and “has a very romantic idea of love affairs,” may be expecting more from this fling, an antidote to the predictable world in which she lives. As days turn to weeks, the extraordinary is replaced by the dull in the gray gloom of a soulless suburb.

Geography of an Adultery is a short first novel, depicting the course of a love story which the reader knows is over even as it begins. Writing from the perspective of Ema, Agnès Riva observes the lovers with entomological precision. Each chapter is set in a different place: Paul’s car; a corner of Ema’s house nestled exactly between the sink and the fridge; the chapel of a monastery; a tea room at a shopping mall; a hotel apartment. The coldness of these neutral spaces contrasts with the storm raging inside Ema, and cruelly highlights the widening gap between her aspirations and the sad reality of this pre-written, unsurprising affair.

The writing style is emotionless and meticulous, growing increasingly distant as Ema detaches herself from her prefabricated dreams. Annie Ernaux comes to mind in the clinical descriptions of feelings and the setting of housing developments that sprang up in the 1980s, where every home looks the same. Refusing anything spectacular, Agnès Riva roots this singular affair within our collective history, using Paul and Ema’s past to shine a light on the extreme banality of different places and to offer a sociological study of the French middle class. Tinged with subtle humor, Geography of an Adultery is akin to a suburban Madame Bovary’s revenge.


Geography of an Adultery by Agnès Riva, translated from French by John Cullen, Other Press, 2022. 160 pages, 14.99 dollars.

Article published in the April 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.