Three years ago, Renée Néré left her cheating husband of eight years. She is now an independent woman, supporting herself as a music-hall artist. She is successful, but lonely. And at age 33, she cannot help but think what her future might be like, once her beauty has faded and her body won’t be able to handle the rigors of regular performances anymore. Still, her horrible marriage has left her afraid to become dependent on anyone else again. She has just signed on for a months-long dance tour through France when she meets Maxime. This rich and idle bachelor has attended one of her performances and is now determined to make her his. He offers Renée a safe and comfortable future; he would be able to fulfill many of her dreams, and yet she is struggling to become involved and to trust. It takes a long time for Renée to decide to open herself to Maxime. Despite Maxime’s protest, Renée decides to honor her contract and go on tour with her dance partner. Will their relationship survive the separation?
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, the author, was quite a scandalous personality in the early to mid-20th century—even in Paris. She was an actress, a mime, and a journalist. In 1948, she was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, and despite crippling arthritis, she worked until her death in 1954. Much of her work is autobiographical, a fact that she works through in length in her final work, The Blue Lantern (Le Fanal Bleu). After her first divorce, she supported herself by performing in dance halls across France, and so it is easy to see where her inspiration for La Vagabonde came from.
Written as a series of reflections and letters, La Vagabonde is deeply personal and made quite an impression on me. Renée is an unsentimental narrator; she is an astute observer, firmly rooted in the realities of her life as a dancer. She shows us the elation after a successful performance, but also the hard work, fatigue, and injuries that come with it. Her husband’s betrayal and rejection of her love have cut her deeply, and she makes no secret of her inability to trust others because of that experience. It was often sad to see her so lonely. She knows there is little use to become attached to her fellow performers at the music hall as they easily and quickly move on; she is used to being ignored by people who happily met with her while she was married; and before Maxime comes along, she has only one friend with whom she meets on a regular basis. Because of her honesty, it is easy for the reader to get to know her and settle down next to her while she shares her fears about her uncertain future and her anxiety about her husband’s affairs. But it is also easy to see her strength, and her willingness to work for what she wants is admirable.
I admit, when Maxime came along, I was happy that Renée would finally have someone to look out for her and to shoulder her burdens. Yes, he was idle and a bit frivolous, but he obviously wanted only what’s best for Renée. How good to know that there was someone to take care of her. Take a deep breath, Renée, and let yourself fall. Isn’t it tempting?
I certainly fell for the romance easily enough! How quickly I was willing to hand her over, so that she would receive all the wonderful things she rightly deserves. I’m glad that Renée kept her cool. It was a pleasure to accompany her on her tour, to see her work through her options, and to be right next to her while she decides, proudly and independently, what future she wants for herself.
While Colette’s post-war work is better known, I think this is the one you should read. It’s quite a masterpiece. If you decide on the audiobook instead, then know that Johanna Ward is an excellent narrator.