It’s the beginning of a new year, which means many people will be picking up self-help books. I was curious about Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One because it is, as far as I know, the only book of its kind: self-help fiction. YSLB tells the story of a Parisian woman named Camille who changes her life with the help of Claude, a “routinologist.”
After they meet by chance, Claude describes the nature of his work to the harried, stressed-out Camille. “You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis,” he tells her. “The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your bearings and everything meaningful in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness… Unfortunately, developing our capacity for being happy isn’t something we’re taught at school. Yet there are techniques you can learn.”
After mulling it over for a few days, Camille decides to call Claude and schedule an appointment, hoping to learn how to escape the rut of her long marriage and sometimes-fraught relationship with her 9-year-old son, and her exhausting job. The “routinologist” begins presenting her with tasks, from the straightforward (“throw away at least ten useless objects and… tidy up, sort out and refresh your surroundings”) to the fanciful (taking her on a long car ride to meet a great teacher who turns out to be… a cat: “There’s no one like him for being peaceful and calm, completely anchored in the here and now”). Over time, her life begins to change for the better in practically every way, including her love life with her husband Sebastien (“A warm wind blew on our love, reviving embers that seemed only too willing to burst into flame”).
My biggest beef with YSLB is that it’s just not very good as a novel. It’s full of anodyne aphorisms (“Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present” and “Come down from your cross, we need the wood”), and a lot of Claude’s advice seems torn from the pages of other self-help books, like suggesting she implement SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. This made me curious to learn what SMART goals were called in the original French version. It turns out they’re… called SMART goals (Spécifique, Mesurable, Atteignable, Réaliste, Temps), which seems like a lucky break for the translator.
As someone who has often struggled with routinitis, I think the real benefit that Claude is selling is accountability. It’s easy to say you’re going to start doing things to break out of your rut, but wouldn’t you rather have a charming older Frenchman at your side to encourage you and take you on adventures? (The cat thing might have been a bit of an anticlimax, but he also arranges for Camille to go up in a hot-air balloon so she can toss overboard paper airplanes with negative thoughts written on them.)
YSLB has been a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of copies sold, so obviously a lot of people have found it inspirational. Personally, it made me think that a really great way to break out of my own routine would be to go to Paris and sit at a sidewalk café sipping an espresso while reading a more enjoyable novel than this one.