Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon (review)

First published in 1946, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan features a forty-eight-year-old down-and-out actor named François Combe. François has come to Manhattan to escape the scrutiny of the Paris milieu following his wife’s decision to leave him for a much younger (and less talented) actor.

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One night, unable to sleep, he leaves his apartment at 3am and goes to a bar where he meets a woman named Kay. Somehow Kay instinctively knows that François is French, and she strikes up a conversation with him. Even though he finds her habits and slow movements rather annoying, François is strangely drawn to Kay. It’s as if he sees her as a reflection of himself, another wounded soul in a lonely city. He can sense it in her voice:

A low voice that made you think of a scar that hadn’t healed, of a hurt that lingers beneath consciousness, soft and familiar, deep inside. (pg 8)

They have a few drinks, smoke a few cigarettes and leave the bar together at 5am. After drifting through the sidewalks for a couple of hours, they end up taking a room at a shabby hotel. (Kay has been locked out of the apartment she shared with a girlfriend and François doesn’t want to take her to his place, not yet). When François wakes up the next day, even though he has known Kay for less than 24 hours, he is a little fearful of the thought of losing her. Perhaps he is also afraid of losing something of himself:

Strange, they’d gone to sleep in this room as the night ended and woken up again as the night began. He was almost afraid to leave it – frightened of forgetting some part of himself there that he might never be able to find again. (pg.16)

What follows is a portrayal of François and Kay’s relationship as it develops over the course of a few weeks. It’s a connection based on loneliness and abandonment. We follow the couple as they drift around the sidewalks of the city: they move from bar to bar; they play the same song on the jukebox; they drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. The novel’s title refers to the three bedrooms the couple visit as their relationship continues: first the hotel room, then François’ apartment and finally Kay’s room. As Kay sees the actor’s apartment for the first time, the depth of his solitude is painfully apparent:

The still-lighted lamp greeted them. The room was quiet, and the quietness was almost spectral. He had thought it would look sordid, but it was tragic, that was all, full of the tragedy of loneliness and abandonment. (pg. 45)

Kay has been around the block a few times – her face looks a little tired and worn for a woman in her early thirties. She claims to have been married to a Hungarian Count, a relationship that ended when she ran away following months of abuse. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that there is a possessive, almost obsessive, side to François’ character. He harbours feelings of jealously about the men in Kay’s past, men he has never met and probably shouldn’t be worrying about. He suspects her of lying to him. At times he is tender towards Kay; on one or two occasions, however, he is cold and abusive:

He watched her take her clothes off, and he remained cold. Yes, he could remain cold to her. She wasn’t beautiful or irresistible, as she thought she was. Her body, like her face was marked by life.

And now, thinking about her, he felt himself carried away by anger, by a need to wipe out everything, to consume everything, to possess everything. (pg. 37)

This is a strange story, quite dreamlike and hypnotic. There is a sense that François and Kay are existing outside of a reality, a world where time seems to expand and contract. Things that happened only moments earlier seem distant and far away. By day three of their relationship, it feels as if they have been together for several years.

In her introduction to Three Bedrooms, Joyce Carol Oates states that the novel is a fictionalised account of Simenon’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. It’s one of the reasons why I found this novel quite intriguing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite reads of the year, but something about this couple’s story got under my skin. François and Kay are two people who need each other. They cling desperately together and they can’t help but bruise one another in the process.

The writing is spare but affecting. The earlier quotes should give you a feel for the style, but here’s another example, a short quote from a passage where François is trying to figure Kay out:

She seemed to be seeking out the despair of others, as if she wanted to rub against it, to wear it down before it could pierce her. (pg. 43)

Simenon’s descriptions of Manhattan are wonderfully atmospheric. This is a dark and melancholy place, the New York of brooding streets and seedy bars:

Two wide streets, almost deserted, with garlands of luminous globes running down the sidewalks.

On the corner, its high windows lit violently, aggressively, with boastful vulgarity, was a sort of long glass cage where people could be seen as dark smudges and where he went in just so as not to be alone. (pg. 6)

Simenon’s description of the Greenwich Village bar in which François meets Kay reminded me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (a painting thought to have been inspired by a Greenwich diner).

Nighthawks_by_Edward_Hopper_1942

I’ll end with a short quote on the atmosphere in the bar, one that conveys a sense of loneliness in the city:

The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference. (pg. 6)

Guy at His Futile Preoccupations has also reviewed this novel (along with several other romans durs by Simenon).

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (tr. by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 19/20 in my #TBR20.

50 thoughts on “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon (review)

  1. Caroline

    I read this a few years ago but the French edition doesn’t have a foreword, so it was good to read where the idea came from. I also picture Hopper’s painting. I really liked this book. I loved the mood. I should get to my pile of unread Simenon.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, did you review it, Caroline? I didn’t think to check your blog before I posted my review! If so, I’ll add a link.

      Glad you liked this book too; there’s something really intriguing about it. Hopper’s painting just seems to capture the mood and atmosphere perfectly.

      Reply
  2. crimeworm

    I’ve never been aware of any Simenon novels, bar Maigret! This sounds intriguing. Thanks Jacqui. (I love Nighthawks – I always think about the people’s stories!)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome. This was my first experience of Simenon’s roman durs, and I’m certainly keen to try others. It’s an intriguing story, especially when you learn of the connection to Simenon’s own life. Nighthawks is one of my favourite paintings, and it captures the mood perfectly. (I always try to imagine people’s lives and backstories, too!)

      Reply
    2. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I forgot to mention…Guy’s blog has a section devoted to Simenon’s romans durs, loads of great stuff on there. Guy rates other Simenons ahead of Three Bedrooms, so you might want to take a look at his reviews. I have Dirty Snow and The Widow in my TBR – both sound excellent, possibly better than Three Bedrooms.

      Reply
  3. hastanton

    O I only know the Maigret novels ( which I love ) and didn’t know he’d written other stuff too . I will keep my eyes open for this when book shopping in France.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is much darker, more psychological in nature than the Maigret novels, but it’s an interesting study of an obsessive relationship born out of a sense of dependency. An intriguing novel if you’re after something moody and melancholy.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    I love the sound of this, from the quotes the writing sounds wonderfully atmospheric. Never read any Simenon which I have been meaning to remedy.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. It’s definitely worth trying some Simenon, Ali. This one is moody and atmospheric…much darker than the Maigret novels.

      Reply
  5. naomifrisby

    Added to my list. I’m a sucker for anything set in NYC; your review reminded me a little of Lost in Translation, which I love, and that final quote with the fairground comparison was a winner for me! I love these NYRB classics too: they’re always interesting novels and they have such beautiful covers. Good review, thanks Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Naomi. That’s good to hear! Actually, I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on it at some point. I hadn’t thought of Lost in Translation, but that’s a really interesting reference. (I have it on DVD and it’s been ages since I last watched it…one to revisit). I must admit to being a sucker for anything set in Manhattan, too, and the cover really sold it to me.

      Reply
  6. poppypeacockpens

    Like Ali I haven’t read any Simenon but your review definitely confirms I should… Love the quotes you’ve chosen, give a sense of almost a menacing mood… intrigued by both Francois & Kay – is it all from his pov or mixed?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he’s a great writer, definitely worthy of exploration. The Maigrets are perfect wind-down reads. A good option if you’re looking for a decent, traditional detective novel…nothing too taxing, but enough plot and atmosphere to maintain your interest.

      Three Bedrooms is one of his roman durs (the psychological novels), and it’s very dark and atmospheric. ‘Menacing’ is a great word for it as there is something deeply unsettling and obsessive about François and Kay’s relationship. Simenon holds the reader quite close to François (possibly because the story is rooted in his own experience) so it’s mostly his point of view. Now you mention it though, it would have been really interesting to see a bit more of the relationship from Kay’s perspective. Nevertheless, it’s an intriguing story that lingers in the imagination…

      Reply
  7. Gemma

    I love the quotes you’ve included Jacqui, they give a real feel for the atmosphere of the novel, and I like the style. The novel sounds really interesting – added to the to-read list!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Gemma – glad the quotes are useful! It is rather dark, a subtle portrayal of an obsessive relationship born out of loneliness and sense of dependency. The connection with Simenon’s own life hooked me into the story.

      Reply
  8. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review, Jacqui. I have read some of Simenon’s non-Maigret books and they’re often quite dark – and as you say, they get under your skin. Shall look out for this one.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I’ve read a few of the Maigrets (very enjoyable palate-cleansers), but this was my first experience of Simenon’s more psychologically-focused novels. I definitely want to read others though. Dirty Snow and The Widow are sitting on one of the bookshelves so I must read those two before considering any others! Have you read either of those two?

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        No – but I did read “Three Crimes” (very dark) and “Monsieur Monde Vanished” (excellent). Trouble is, he’s written so many…

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great! I’m certainly keen to read more of them too. I’m delighted to hear you liked Dirty Snow as it’s one of the two I have in my TBR! Three Bedrooms is definitely worth considering. It’s dripping in mood and atmosphere, and the connection to Simenon’s own relationship with Denise Ouimet makes it all the more intriguing. As per usual with NYRB Classics, the introduction is very illuminating.

      Reply
  9. Guy Savage

    Thanks for the mention Jacqui. This isn’t even close to my favourite Simenon. IMO his novels set in America are not as successful–that said, I loved The Brothers Rico (there’s a film of it too). Simenon had a very tangled relationship w/Denise.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Guy. Yes, I gathered this isn’t your favourite of his roman durs, and I’m quite excited by the prospect of other, better novels to come. I have Dirty Snow and The Widow in my TBR, both of which sound darker and more noirish than Three Bedrooms. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you’d place these two ahead of Three Bedrooms?)

      Returning to Three Bedrooms, I’m a sucker for anything related to Manhattan, and the premise sounded interesting. What really intrigues me though is the connection between the story and Simenon’s relationship with Ouimet – I’m fascinated by anything like that. The atmosphere is wonderfully seedy and woozy, too, like some kind of skewed dream state.

      I’ll take a look at The Brothers Rico (thanks for mentioning that one and the film connection). In the meantime, I have The Widow and Dirty Snow ahead of me.

      Reply
  10. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    I do like books about the complex nature of relationships and this one sounds like it is one of them. I do think that it sounds like a nice counterpoint, or at least a darker and perhaps realistic variation, to all the “Lonely people finding love” stories that are so popular.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, definitely. That’s a good point about the contrast; it is a darker, more twisted version of the typical lost-souls-finding-love narrative. It sounds as though Simenon and Ouimet’s relationship was a complex one.

      Reply
  11. Scott W.

    I can envision taking a few months off (as if!), finding a quiet place to read, and just working through all 192 of Simenon’s novels. The only one of the romans durs I’ve read is Feux Rouges, another of his “American” novels.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, yes – a Simenon marathon, so to speak! There’s something very addictive about his writing. I hope to read another couple of the roman durs before too long. What did you think of Feux Rouges/Red Lights? I’m fairly certain I’ve seen the film adaptation by Cédric Kahn, although it was so long ago I could probably come to the novel fairly fresh.

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        Feux Rouges was great – a careening, alcohol-fueled streak across the northeastern American landscape.

        Perhaps rather than a marathon I should just work one or two Simenon books into my regular reading every month. They’re what initially helped wake up my French after years of its lying more or less dormant.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          ‘Careening’ – what a great description, I’m sold. I rather wish I had Feux Rouges/Red Lights in my pile of books. One for the future as I know I can trust your recommendations.

          That’s not a bad way to go with the Simenon books, spread them out a little. I read a few of the Maigret novels last year (as and when Penguin released the new translations) but it wasn’t long before I slipped out of the habit!

          Reply
  12. 1streading

    Great review. The only non-Maigret novel I’ve read is The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By. I was trying to read the Maigret books as they came out in Penguin’s new translations, but have fallen a little behind! They also seem to be translating the other novels as well – though I don’t know if these are in order. Their greater literary value is demonstrated by a higher cover price!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Grant. Yes, I ripped through a few of the Penguin Maigret reissues when they appeared last year, but have slipped out of the habit of late! It’s hard to keep up with them. Nice to see Penguin releasing a few of Simenon’s other novels too, especially first translations of novels like The Mahé Circle. There’s another, The Blue Room, which sounds like it might be in a similar vein to Three Bedrooms in Manhattan.

      Reply
  13. gertloveday

    Darkness and obsession – I hadn’t even thought of Simenon without Maigret till I read one of the romans durs a few years ago. I can’t even remember which one it was but it was horrifyingly bleak, set in flat, dark country by a canal and with such damaged characters. It really got to me and I didn’t finish it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, gosh. I wonder if it might have been Dirty Snow or The Widow? I get the feeling both of these novels are very bleak, almost as if you looking into the heart of evil itself. Three Bedrooms is dark, and there is an obsessive/possessive edge to François and Kay’s relationship, but there are a few glimmers of hope.

      Reply
  14. erdeaka

    Nice review, Jacqui ;) I think this is a fascinating story, because you know I like it when everything is weird and quite difficult to understand, especially a relationship between two people.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ratih. Well, I think you’d find this one of interest! It’s all the more fascinating when you learn that the core of the story is rooted in reality.

      Reply
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  16. Séamus Duggan

    Great review Jacqui. The romans durs have been on my radar for a while now but I’ve yet to take the plunge. I tend to wait until I find books in charity shops etc but I may have to go the amazon route here.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Seamus. I’ve been meaning to make a start on them for a while, and Three Bedrooms seemed like a good entry point especially given the connection to Simenon’s affair with Denise Ouimet.

      Yep, they might be hard to find it charity shops! I try to use Hive or Wordery as independent alternatives to Amazon, so it might be worth taking a look there?

      Reply
  17. Max Cairnduff

    This sounds rather good, despite Guy’s misgivings (I’ll read his review next). I have Simenon’s Dirty Snow, but haven’t read it yet (and it’s not on the #TBR20 so it’ll be a little while before I do). If I take to that though this may be next, as the atmosphere sounds excellent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I liked it very much, Max. The mood and atmosphere are fantastic, and the story has lingered around in my mind. Dirty Snow is one of his best (and bleakest) by all accounts. I’m thinking of trying it later this year. Let me know if you’d like to read it with me – happy to be flexible on the timings if that helps.

      Reply
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