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On a single day in 1940, as Victorine reflects on her ...
On a single day in 1940, as Victorine reflects on her past, we travel back with her, from the willow-lined canals of her childhood home in Vendee to sun-drenched days and languorous nights along the Mekong River at the dawn of the twentieth century. Hers is an unforgettable story of adventure and self-discovery—of a woman's struggle between duty and independence, tradition and freedom, longing and regret.
September 8, 1940 11:15 a.m.
There's barely enough time to go to the beach before Maurice comes to pick her up for lunch, but she doesn't want to miss seeing the ocean for the last time. The rain, which has poured down for the past three days, has finally stopped and washed the sky a deep, spotless blue. She hurries through the bungalow, impersonal now that most of the furniture has been moved, folds a blanket into her tapestry bag, and puts on rubber galoshes over her soft woolen slippers; the sand might still be damp.
The old steamer trunk stands in the middle of the empty parlor, where the movers have left it, after having brought it up from the basement the day before. The trunk is smaller than she remembers it, its leather scuffed and scratched from years of use. She runs a finger through the dust. It's been forty years.
She struggles to slide open the locks. A heavy smell permeates the old clothes: sandalwood. Her hands fumble along one side of the trunk, then the other. She had slipped in the diary afterward, hastily, she remembers. She pulls out a copy of Madame Chrysanthème, a novel by Pierre Loti, then a catalogue of the 1900 World Expo. That one, too, she must have put in the trunk later. Has she misplaced the diary? She finds a few more books, a photo album with a red leather cover, a blue ledger filled with a list of items: white handkerchiefs, pillowcases, tablecloths with point lancé or Valenciennes, each priced in piastres. Finally, her hand feels a rectangular object at the bottom of the trunk. She pulls it out. Yes, it's the brown notebook. It smells damp and smoky. Without opening it she puts it into her bag and quickly walks out. Drops of water festoon the latticework running under the roof of the bungalow. In the garden, she notices, the hollyhocks, which have grown tall and wild over the summer, are fading to pale lavender and watery pink, as if their colors were running with the late summer rain.
Her joints are swollen with arthritis and her fingers a little twisted at the knuckles. She's carrying her big tapestry bag by the handle. She's put on an apron over her dress as if she were going to the backyard to pick a lettuce or a head of chard for dinner, and a cardigan over it; it's cool by the ocean. The dress is navy blue, printed with tiny white birds or windmills. The cardigan is hand-knitted in a shade of lilac or puce, or just plain gray. Her legs are covered with thick, white cotton stockings. On her feet are the slippers with soft soles and gray pom-poms, and the rubber galoshes over them.
The dories are leaning drunkenly, pastel blotches in the morning sun, their masts teetering low above the wet sand. Just as they had that day when he had come up to her, in his big black overcoat, holding his hat over his chest, bowing. When she was a young bride, before the birth of Daniel, Armand had taken her to Paris and they had gone to visit an exhibition of paintings everybody was talking about. The canvases were covered with tiny splashes of color that blurred when you came up close. But if you took a step back, the scene quivered to life. People said it was sloppy, not good art, and yet now, the beach in the late morning, dotted with the hulls of the dories, mottled with the flickering shadows cast by high, wind-swept clouds, reminds her of those paintings.
She spreads the blanket at the foot of the dunes, sits down, removes her rubber galoshes, and takes the notebook out of her tapestry bag. Forty years, she thinks again. Forty years that she hasn't seen it or even opened that trunk. It had remained closed through all her...
1. How would you describe Texier’s writing style? Why has she chosen to structure the narrative around a single day late in Victorine’s life and interweave it with flashbacks? How does this structure work with the plot and the atmosphere of the novel? What effect does the structure have on the reader that a straightforward, chronological structure would not? What is the purpose of Texier’s prologue and epilogue?
2. Describe the different places in Victorine. What do the landscapes hold for the characters and the story? How do the characters react differently to the various landscapes? How are Victorine’s houses in both Vendée and Vietnam described? Why are they described in such detail?
3. How has growing up in a small village in Vendée, on the Atlantic coast of France, affected Victorine’s personality and desires? How has it influenced her decisions and compromises? Why does she escape this world and then abandon her new life and return to France?
4. Why is the tale of how Victorine got her name important? Does it reveal anything about her and what she is going to be like? How do her childhood and her parents mold the adult that Victorine becomes? Describe her parents. In what ways is she similar to her father? How does he encourage her to follow her dreams?
5. Antoine tells Victorine, “I will not betray you” [p. 158]. But Victorine reflects that she is the betrayer. Discuss the theme of betrayal in this novel. What types of betrayal occur in the novel? Who betrays whom? Is silence a betrayal? Antoine tells Victorine, “It’s your silence that is poisoning your life” [p. 241]. Do you agree with this statement? Are the French betraying the Vietnamese? Are they betraying the democratic ideals of their home country?
6. What is the role of opium in the novel? How do the various characters react to it and change their opinion of it over the course of the novel? How do the French use it to control the Vietnamese? How do various people use it to control others? Why do the French tax opium? What do you learn about French colonialism in Indochina through reading Victorine?
7. Discuss the theme of the corset and the unhooked woman in Victorine.
8. How are the characters of Antoine and Armand both similar and different? How does each court Victorine and win her heart? What attracts her to each man? Is her relationship with each man different? What determines and undermines Victorine’s romantic attachments? How do the events of the novel shift her ties to each man? Armand explains to Victorine, “If you’re never satisfied with what you have, you’ll always be miserable” [p. 121]. Does she have a satisfying relationship with either man?
9. “How can she, just like that, walk from one man’s bed to another’s?” Victorine asks herself [p. 154]. How and why does she?
10. Describe her relationship with the Buddhist monk. What do they share? What does she learn from him and perhaps he from her? How is he different from the other men in her life?
11. Contrast Victorine with the other women in the novel—her sisters, Armand’s sisters, her mother, and Camille. What is her relationship like with these various women? Why does she want to continue working when all the other women around her are housewives?
12. What kind of mother is Victorine? Why doesn’t she take her children with her when she escapes to Vietnam? How has motherhood transformed or hindered Victorine? What is Victorine’s mother like?
13. The novel raises the question of whether responsibility to one’s family and society is more sacred than being true to oneself. Discuss the tension between responsibility and freedom in Victorine’s life. How does she both escape and embrace her feelings of captivity and independence? Does she remain true to herself with her decisions?
14. Victorine is filled with references and allusions to books and to writing. In what ways is the novel both telling a story and commenting on the importance of stories and novels in our lives? What is the importance of novels about women and far-off lands to Victorine? Who are her favorite novelists? Name some of the books mentioned. What is the significance of the references to writing—postcards, journals, letters, teaching the students to spell, and learning Chinese calligraphy?
15. Why does Victorine throw away the notebook of her journal entries after keeping it for so many years?
16. What is the significance of the abundant ocean and water imagery (the canals of Vendée, the Mekong River) in Victorine? What do the beach and the ocean represent for Victorine? What about the stuffed seagull?