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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.
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 moves, from Velluire to Maillezais, from Maillezais to Le Gué de Velluire, from Le Gué de Velluire to Villa Saint-Claude, here, in La Faute.
The brown cardboard cover, she remembers, was originally embossed with arabesques in a Moorish style, probably to imitate Moroccan leather. She opens it. A few letters and yellowed newspaper clippings slip out on her lap. Some of the pages are stuck together. She separates them carefully in order not to tear them. The faint blue lines are barely decipherable now, and the original violet or blue ink has turned a pale umber.
Several pages are covered by foreign words dotted with accents.
Cám o?n Chào Chào tam biet biet chúc ng'u ngonda CÂY BÀNG bún riêuphía nam CÔ CHIÊN Chan doocái màn làm gidóng cua oi dâu nha quêbuô?i tó?i
She reads the words slowly one after another. Most don't mean anything to her anymore.
A loose page in a thick paper, folded four times, reveals a row of Chinese characters. One of them, she recognizes, spells out her name.
The others are indecipherable to her now.
She leafs back to the beginning of the diary and reads the first entry.
4 Avril 1898 Saw A. on the beach yesterday. They say things always happen for a reason. Do they?
April 1898-she was not yet thirty-two.
Excerpted from Victorine by Catherine Texier Copyright © 2004 by Catherine Texier. Excerpted by permission.
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