Madeleine Is Sleeping

Madeleine Is Sleeping

3.4 5
by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

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When a girl falls into a deep and impenetrable sleep, the borders between her provincial French village and the peculiar, beguiling realm of her dreams begin to disappear: A fat woman sprouts delicate wings and takes flight; a failed photographer stumbles into the role of pornographer; a beautiful young wife grows to resemble her husband's viol. And in their…  See more details below


When a girl falls into a deep and impenetrable sleep, the borders between her provincial French village and the peculiar, beguiling realm of her dreams begin to disappear: A fat woman sprouts delicate wings and takes flight; a failed photographer stumbles into the role of pornographer; a beautiful young wife grows to resemble her husband's viol. And in their midst travels Madeleine, the dreamer, who is trying to make sense of her own metamorphosis as she leaves home, joins a gypsy circus, and falls into an unexpected triangle of desire and love.

An extraordinary debut, Madeleine Is Sleeping received jubilant critical acclaim and was honored with a National Book Award nomination. Part fairy tale, part coming-of-age story, this "dream of a book" (Michael Cunningham) is an adventure in the discovery of art, sexuality, community, and the self.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Bynum's lush, poetic imagery is full of vivid, sensuous details one can almost smell, taste, and feel . . . Achingly human and poignantly telling."--The Boston Globe

"Hypnotic . . . A small, enchanting novel that appeals to the naughty, insolent child in each of us."--USA Today


"Bynum's boldly original first novel is an allegory of adolescence...every page offers something original."
Christian Science Monitor

"Like a dream, this novel fills the mind with tantalizing ambiguity, haunting images, and innocent longings that are slow to fade."
Washington Post Book World

"Masterful...a voice at once sensuous and humorous, mellifluous and matter-of-fact"

"Bynum's voice is vivid, her use of language incisive and surprising."
Time Out New York

"A magical tale"
New York Times

"Extravagantly imagined...a fantasy influenced by writers from Ludwig Bemelmans to Angela Carter"
Boston Globe

"A luminous debut novel..powerful and hauntingly elusive"
Andrew Ervin
Madeleine Is Sleeping tiptoes the line between fantasy and reality, between history and myth. It gently suspends the reader in the comfortable twilight moment that comes just before falling asleep.

By blurring those distinctions, Bynum makes readers question the extent to which we may be sleepwalking through our lives. And she asks us to discover what our own dreams can teach us. The result is a small, enchanting novel that appeals to the naughty, insolent child in each of us.
— USA Today

Publishers Weekly
An immensely obese woman who sprouts two magnificent pairs of wings, a lonely housewife who grows strings to match her husband's viol and a lascivious, wealthy widow are just a few of the fantastical characters who populate the enchanting world of Bynum's debut. Written in brief, dreamy segments (appropriately enough, since the title character has fallen into a Sleeping Beauty-like slumber), the book alternates deftly between reality and illusion as it follows Madeleine down a path of sexual, artistic and personal discovery. In a perverse revisitation of Ludwig Bemelmans's classic children's books, Madeleine, exiled to a Parisian convent from her pastoral French home after committing a rather scientific sex act with the village idiot, joins a band of gypsies who wind up performing for a widow with a love of photography and a penchant for the pornographic. As Madeleine grows entwined in an intensely erotic love triangle with the "flatulent man," M. Pujol, and Adrien, the photographer assigned to document the widow's grotesquely arranged tableaux, life at home grows worse for the family holding vigil over her as she sleeps. The book culminates in a masterful merge between Madeleine's waking life and her dreams, making it impossible to discern whether reality ever existed in Bynum's imaginative tale. Replete with Kafkaesque metamorphoses, Freudian fantasies, Aesopian justice and religious metaphor, the novel is equal parts fairy tale, fable, romance and bildungsroman. At times, the allegorical allusions grow predictable, and some readers may be put off by the constant shifts and uncertainty between fact and fiction. Others looking for a challenging, unusual read will be thrilled by the imagination and mysterious energy that haunt this remarkable debut. Agent, Bill Clegg. (Sept. 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
While Sleeping Beauty may inform the premise of Bynum's debut novel, it is the antithesis of the charming, classic fairy tale we've come to know through the Disney animated feature. Characters of mythic proportions and fantastical traits figure prominently, but pervasive darkness and sexuality render the novel anything but light and childlike. Madeleine, the beautiful daughter whose sleep brings good fortune to her chaotic family, is not awakened by a kiss from a handsome man but by the desire to pursue her own journey of discovery. A stay at an orphanage, time in a gypsy encampment, and a visit to an institute dedicated to the study of aberrant behaviors are just a few of her stops. Many other stories run parallel to Madeleine's tale, including that of Charlotte, a young bride who transforms into the viola that her husband worships. This is not an easy book to read-there are clever allusions to other works of literature and lyrical descriptions. Told in a series of miniature fragments, the multilayered story is complex and sometimes disconcerting. Recommended only for readers who favor an experimental style. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/04.]-Caroline M. Hallsworth, City of Greater Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Harvest Book Series
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hush hush, mother says. Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.

The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magni?ed and languorous, ?ngers ?oating to pursed lips, tip toes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows; they are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room ?lls with one endless exhalation of breath: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh.

Madeleine Dreams a grotesquely fat woman lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her ?ngers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde's fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.

mme.cochon on market day, children linger in their doorways. They hide tight, bulging ?sts behind their backs and underneath their aprons. When Matilde sweeps by, trailing her luxurious rolls of fat behind her, the children shower her. They ?ing bits of lard, the buttery residue scraped from inside a mother's churn, the gristle from Sunday dinner's lamb. The small ?stfuls have grown warm and slippery from the children's kneading, and the air is rich with a comforting, slightly rancid smell.
Mme. Cochon, are you hungry? they whisper as she glides by.

Matilde thinks she hears curiosity in their voices. She smiles mildly as she continues on, dodging the dogs that have run out onto the street, snuf?ing at the scraps. It feels, somehow, like a parade. It feels like a celebration.

surprise once, as matilde made her way through the falling fat, she was startled by a peculiar but not unpleasant throb, which originated in her left shoulder but soon travelled clockwise to the three other corners of her broad back. She wondered if the children were now hurling soup bones, and made an effort to move more swiftly, but suddenly the joyous barrage slowed to a halt. The children stood absolutely still, lips parted, yellow butter dripping onto their shoes. They stared at her with a curiosity Matilde did not recognize.

Hearing a restless ?uttering behind her, she twisted about and glimpsed the frayed edges of an iridescent wing. With great caution, she ?exed her meaty shoulder blades and to her delight, the wing ?apped gaily in response. Matilde had, indeed, ?edged two pairs of ?imsy wings, the lower pair, folded sleekly about the base of her spine, serving as auxiliary to the grander ones above.

flight leaping clumsily, all four wings ?apping, her fat, like sandbags, threatening to ground her, Matilde greets the air with arms spread wide open. A puff of wind lifts the hem of her skirts, seems to tickle her feet, and Matilde demands, Up, up, up! With a groan, the wind harnesses Matilde's impressive buttocks and dangles her above the cobblestones, above the hungry dogs, above the dirty children with fat melting in their ?sts.

stirring madeleine stirs in her sleep.

hush when madeleine sleeps, Mother says, the cows give double their milk. Pansies sprout up between the ?oorboards. Your father loves me, but I remain slender and childless. I can hear the tumult of pears and apples falling from the trees like rain.

Smooth your sister's coverlet. Arrange her hair on the pillowcase. Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her.

Madeleine dreams on dark mornings, when the church still lay in shadow, Saint Michel looked absent-minded, forlorn, penned in by the lead panes that outlined the sad slope of his jaw. She thought him by far the most heartbreaking of the saints, and occasionally yearned to squeeze the long, waxen ?ngers that were pressed together so impassibly as they pointed towards heaven.

He had been a prince once, whose appetite was such that he could never quite keep his mouth closed. In de?ance of medieval conventions, even his portraits attest to his hunger: his lips are always ajar, teeth wetly bared, as if about to bite into his tenants' capons or cheeses or one of their ?rm daughters. In his castle's feasting hall, he liked to stage elaborate tableaux vivants, resurrecting the classical friezes he had seen in his travels, himself always cast as the hero or the young god, a bevy of peasant girls enlisted as dryads, pheasants and rank trout imitating eagles and dolphins. Imagine the depravity, the priest whispers: women with nipples as large and purple as plums, birds molting, dead ?sh suspended from the rafters, and rising in the midst of them all, the achingly glorious Michel, oblivious to the chaos surrounding him. His vanity was unmatched!

penitence and then a plague struck, a drought descended, and Michel found God.

While outside his castle walls the pestilence raged, Michel was struck by the face of the cruci?ed Lord, preserved in a primitive icon that hung beneath the stairs. His fair face had been obliterated by tears and blood; His perfect body was desiccated and dotted with ?ies. Wracked by self-reproach, the prince vowed to destroy his own beauty; he surrendered himself and his lands to the monastery at Rievaulx, where he spent the rest of his days in?icting torture upon himself.

He suffered through ?agellations, hair shirts, and fasting while the abbot meticulously chronicled his decline: Prince Michel can barely leave his pallet; his ?esh has fallen away; repeated ?aying has reopened and infected old wounds; his sackcloth has spawned monstrous lesions about his groin. It was as Michel wished. When he ?nally expired, his face was contorted in anguish, his loveliness effaced by tears and blood. The abbot washed the ravaged body and laid it upon its bier, but by morning the saint had been miraculously restored to perfection, his body whole and sound, his face ?awless and somber. This is the Saint Michel depicted in the cathedral window. Even the devout ?nd it dif?cult to remember the suffering he endured.

I should have loved him more, she thought, if he had remained mutilated.

recognition on a sunday in summer, a blade of empyreal light illuminated his once melancholy face, and she instantly recognized it as her own. Why, it's me, she said to herself, without wonder. I have been looking at myself all along.

And the face was no longer lengthened in sorrow, but bright and ?uid with color. She stood up from her family's pew and walked towards the stained glass, her eyes locked with her own. At the altar, she pivoted on her toes and faced the congregation. Look upon me, she said.

Stepping down from the altar, she approached a stout man sitting in the front pew, the collection plate balanced on his knees, and she touched his chest, with all the tenderness in the world. His stiff Sunday vest peeled away like an orange rind, and she grazed her ?ngertips against the polished, orderly bones of his rib cage. Beneath, she found a curled and pulsing bud, and when she blew on it, it began to unfurl its sanguine petals, one by one. His heart unfolded before her.

She worked her way down each pew, gently touching and blowing as she went, and when she looked around she noticed, with pleasure, that the small ?owers she had uncovered were of a heliotropic variety; their delicate heads nodded to her wherever she went, following her movements like those of the sun.

Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department,
Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Meet the Author

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review and Alaska Quarterly Review. She lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York. Madeleine Is Sleeping is her first novel.

Brief Biography

Brooklyn, New York
Place of Birth:
Houston, Texas
B.A., Brown University; M.A., University of Iowa

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Madeleine Is Sleeping 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I thought this book was simply amazing...a bit deep and confusing for some, but with a dictionary beside you its easy to figure out. Even though I thought the first half was much more fascinating than the second half, I still enjoyed every second of it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a very confusing book. It doesn't really have a plot. You do get very interested in what's going to happen once you get an idea of whats going on, but by that time the books already half way done. There is a small twist of romance and sexuality, but that was the only part that kept me interested. The ending really stinks. Sorry it's true. Right at the climax when your like what happens now? The book stops. I mean it. The last sentence is something like 'everyone listen this is what I know'. Thats the end of the book. I mean I guess it's ok...but I wouldn't recommend it. It's a waste of time. Atleast I think so.
SayingBlackberry More than 1 year ago
Hearts unfold by blowing on their petals and matilde is beautiful like a siren's son and you touch and wear away at a word just by thinking it.