Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Reinvention of Love

I feel like the weather has gotten crisp a lot faster this year than it has in the last few years, so I'm already fully out of my summer reading blitz and firmly entrenched in fall reading. For me, that means books that I can spend time with. I'm stubborn, so even though it's chilly out my windows are still open, and since I get cold quickly I wrap myself up in a blanket to read. Once I'm cocooned, I like to stay that way, so the book I'm sitting with needs to suit the mood created by a cool breeze and a mug of tea. There are lots of books that do the trick, and although I admittedly read Helen Humphreys The Reinvention of Love in August, I think it would be one of them because there's nothing like tragedy to pick up on the nip in fall air.

The Reinvention of Love tells a fictionalized version of the true story of the affair between Adèle Hugo (Victor Hugo's wife) and the author and critic Charles Sainte-Beuve. As many literary affairs are – and this one was certainly literary, even in life – Charles and Adèle's is doomed. Charles is a family friend. Years before the affair began, when Victor Hugo was still new on Paris's literary scene, Charles wrote a favourable review of his poetry and the two became friends. From then on, as Victor became richer and more famous and Charles remained relatively poor, Victor would send Charles his work to review. Charles became a regular guest in the Hugo household and Victor named his second son after him. Then Charles and Adèle began their affair, which was short-lived because in a fit of guilt, Charles, assuming Victor already suspected, confessed the whole thing. Of course, Victor had no idea, and despite his stated desire to remain friends with Charles, that relationship fizzled quickly.

At least, that's how Humphreys tells it. I am not a scholar of either Charles Sainte-Beuve or Victor Hugo, so I'm not entirely sure what is true and what is fiction filling in gaps, but it certainly reads with a kind of straight realism that gives the historical setting a familiar and vivid feel. The novel is written mostly from Charles' perspective, although there are sections written from Adèle's point of view, as well as later ones that come from Adèle's youngest daughter, Dédé, as well.

Although the affair is the catalyst for the novel, the story takes place over several decades, most of which Adèle and Charles spend apart. Charles, a writer, spends a lot of time writing about his love for Adèle – much to the outrage of Victor's fans – and The Reinvention of Love is really about what happens when an affair ends but the love continues. It's actually an incredibly sad story, built as it is of memories and glimpses, but the emotional truth of it is beautiful to read. The novel takes a truly devastating turn, though, when Humphreys moves her attention to Dédé, who was just a little child when Charles and Adèle were having their affair.

Dédé, named for her mother, is very affected by her older sister's sudden death (she drowned) and when Victor moves the family to the Channel Island in a self-imposed exile due to his disagreements with Napoleon III's policies, Dédé is essentially removed from society. There are very few other French-speaking people on the islands, and when she meets an English soldier she becomes obsessed, continuously writing him letters despite rarely receiving anything in reply. Dédé actually manages to escape to Halifax, NS, where this soldier is stationed, and writes to her parents to say they are happily married. I don't want to give away the end of the book, but suffice to say this is not a happy ending.

I don't usually recommend these sorts of deeply sad novels, but The Reinvention of Love, for all its sorrow, is still a beautiful story, and one I knew nothing about before picking it up. Humphreys' evocation of 19th century Paris is striking, and for all his bad luck, Charles relates a lot of unintentionally funny moments and the novel is not all doom and gloom. Rather, it's the kind of book that goes perfectly with chilly weather and thick sweaters. The Reinvention of Love gives you something to think about and, even if it doesn't work out, the love between Charles and Adèle might just be enough to warm you up a little.

The Reinvention of Love
by Helen Humphries
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from HarperCollins edition)

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