Summary and Analysis
In 1995, an unnamed elderly woman in Oregon remembers the loved ones she lost during World War II. She is in the middle of packing, preparing to move to a retirement community at her son’s request. In her attic, she finds a trunk full of war memorabilia, including an identity card for someone named Juliette Gervaise.
The woman’s son finds her crying in the attic. She tells him that she wants to take the trunk with her when she moves. She calls it her “last request”—she seems to be dying of cancer. Julien, her son, asks who Juliette Gervaise is, and the question sparks her memories of the past.
Set more than fifty years after most of the novel’s action takes place, Chapter 1 gives an ambiguous glimpse into how the story will ultimately conclude. With the introduction of the novel’s two heroines, Vianne and Isabelle, in the following chapters, the elderly woman’s identity as one of the two becomes clear. (Chapter 39 reveals for certain that she is Vianne.)
The tone of this first chapter is wistful and sorrowful, implying that the story that follows will be a tragic one. The author creates an obvious contrast between the elderly woman’s resigned mourning and her son’s optimism. Her son, a doctor, tries to believe that her cancer won’t be fatal, saying, “You’ve beaten it twice before. You’ll beat it again.” She responds by observing, “Americans can be so naïve,” illustrating that she has lived through traumas, of which her son is unaware.