I was curious to read this 1920 novel having seen the Audrey Hepburn/Gary Cooper film that was based on it. The original novel, in French, is titled: Ariane, jeune fille russe (Ariane, young Russian girl). The translated English novel has the same title as the film, Love in the Afternoon.
The heroine is a young woman named Ariane, seventeen and in her final year of school when the novel starts. She lives with her eccentric and charming Aunt Varvara in a provincial Russian town. Ariane is a brilliant student with a large circle of male admirers, whom she holds at arm’s length. Denied the chance to go university by her father, she makes her own arrangements to fund her studies and sets off to Moscow. There she meets the hero, much older man-of-the-world Constantin, one night at the opera. He’s described as: “tall, of no definite age, with a touch of carelessness and assurance in his bearing”.
They both essentially fall for one another hard, but both attempt to deny it and conceal it. Constantin becomes increasingly jealous about Ariane’s past. Towards the end she finally confirms the details (though she is lying) of all her previous lovers, and he ditches her. Which is rather bizarre, since supposedly he had assumed that she had had previous lovers when they met. (If readers want a reason to dislike him even more, he also takes up another mistress while he’s with Ariane).
Later Constantin finds Ariane sobbing and confessing that it was all untrue, and that she was “innocent” when they met. He realises the truth of this but he still leaves. Then there’s an eleventh hour reconciliation which is all quite abrupt. Interestingly it’s the exact same ending as the film (which is otherwise only a very loose adaption of the novel, barely an adaptation at all, in fact. None of the book’s other characters are represented, and the protagonists are wildly different).
Overall the novel is not as satisfying as it could be, as several loose ends are left regarding other characters. Such detailed portraits have been created of these other people in Ariane’s life, in particular Aunt Varvara, it’s disappointing that they are somewhat cheaply discarded about three-quarters of the way through – we don’t hear from them again. Other themes, such as Ariane’s true parentage, also fall by the wayside.
Readers who enjoy novels of this era, with the (now antiquated) mores, morals and melodrama of the early 20th century, should enjoy this. Descriptions are lavish and there’s a lot to enjoy. Aspects of it reminded me of certain Elinor Glyn novels, in particular [book:The Career of Katherine Bush|8252912].
Note: I read the translated version which was published by Classica Libris. I could not find the name of the translator, but a comparison with the original French suggest that it is an excellent translation with careful and precise nuance. For example, “des families de la petite bourgeoisie sans fortune” is translated as “lower middle-class families of no substance”.