“For you, houses are like people, are they not, they have a soul, a heart, they live and breathe. Houses remember.”
The house that Rose lives in is due to be demolished, as are the rest of the buildings on her street and the surrounding streets, to mould Paris into a ‘modern city’, according to Emperor Napoleon III’s plans.
She tells this in letters to her late husband Armand, along with fond – and sad – reminiscences of their past, how they met, their children, his death, and the life she slowly begins to rebuild afterwards, with help from Alexandrine (what a lovely name!), a young florist in the neighbourhood who brings such life with her.
This is interspersed with some letters written to her by various characters in her life such as her brother and her mother-in-law, which add a little more to the story. Yet those bits left me wanting more. To hear more from Alexandrine and her mysterious sad past, to have more love letters written by Armand before his death. These letters are too few and far between.
It is a rather odd story. I guess I was expecting Rose to fight harder for the house. She does, I suppose, in her own way, by staying in the house after her letters in protest and a visit to the Prefect’s office go in vain, and the street demolition begins. It’s a little bizarre, her reasoning. I’m not quite sure what she expects the outcome to be. And as the story progresses on that note, it becomes a bit depressing.
“The house bore the story of our love in its inner structure, in its quaint beauty. The house was my link to you, forever. By losing the house, I would again lose you.”
For her, the house means everything, as it is the one thing that ties her to Armand. He who loved the house, whose family had lived in this very house for generations, where his children were born and where his mother died.
Still, the book had its moments, especially some nice bookish ones. One of my favourite scenes takes place in a neighbourhood bookstore, recently renovated and which her late husband patronized (he was a reader, she wasn’t). The proprietor, a Monsieur Zamarreti, invites her to sit and read for a while. And even makes some suggestions. Eventually he picks a novel about a beautiful, bored lady, an avid reader of sentimental novels who “longs for romance and finds her marriage dreary”. That is, Madame Bovary. Rose expects to sit and flip through the book for twenty minutes or so but emerges from the story three hours later only when her housekeeper comes looking for her as it is past dinnertime.
As Madame Rose remains in her house, aided by a friendly ragpicker who keeps her fed and warm. She spends her time writing her letters to her late husband, and reading.
“My books, down here with me. Fine ones, beautifully bound, in all different colours. I do not wish to ever separate myself from them. Madame Bovary, of course, the one that opened the door to the bewitching world of reading. Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, which I pick up from time to time as the hours glide by. The fascinating aspect about poems, as opposed to novels, is that one can read just a couple, and a few more later on, like a sort of continuous treat that one nibbles at. Monsieur Baudelaire’s poems are strange and haunting. They are full of images, sounds and colours, sometimes disturbing.”
A book that is filled with such sadness yet it has its heartwarming moments.