Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Cheri and Last of Cheri by Colette

Title: Cheri / Last of Cheri
Author: Colette
Genre: Classics
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1920
Pages: 247

Rating: 8 out of 10

This is a combination of two individual books, usually paired together in one volume, which I will review here separately.

The first, Chéri, introduces us to a stunningly beautiful, conceited young man named Frank Peloux, otherwise known as Chéri. At twenty-five, he is having a love affair with the sophisticated Léa de Lonval, a courtesan twice his age. When Chéri must marry a young heiress, Léa reluctantly decides that they must end the relationship. Chéri pretends indifference, but finds himself haunted by the one person he has ever cared about - Léa.

Though the plot a bit was blurry, I found the characters complex and thought provoking, with realistic and interesting characters.

Chéri and Léa's relationship intrigued me. Why does Léa stay with the selfish, arrogant Chéri? Why does a young man who has every young beauty in Paris falling at his feet choose a woman in her late forties as his lover?
As someone in a relationship with someone well over twice my age, I always find age differences fascinating to read about.

Chéri, the main character, was someone who I found myself hating intensely and sympathizing with all at once. He is far from admirable, being closer to evil than good. I was infuriated by his flippant arrogance, his self proclaimed malice and selfishness, and the way that he referred to his wife, Edmée.
Some of the things that he says so shamelessly are truly shocking. One of the first was early on the book, where he tells Léa about his fiancee:

"Oh! She won't be allowed to have a say in anything. She's going to be my wife, isn't she? Let her kiss the sacred ground I tread on, and thank her lucky stars for the privilege. And that will be that."

Surely he is joking! However, as we read further into the story, we see that he was completely serious.
Among his other horrifying statements is that he actually wants Léa to mourn him and die of grief once they are parted.
He is honest, you have to give him that.

However, we see another side of this monster as well. We see that despite his pretense of being cold and unfeeling, he is truly in love with a woman who he cannot have. His fanatic longing and weary outlook on life is realistic, and sharply felt.
Chéri is a well written, complicated mix of hero and villain.

His lover Léa is mentioned constantly, though she is not physically present in very much of the story. She is a mature, sensible woman who took Chéri on as her last affair. And who better than a far younger man with the looks of a Greek god, she asks us?
Léa is fashionable, she is sophisticated, she is regal. I pictured her a woman with an ageless sort of grace that is often more beautiful than a pretty face.
But, as with her young lover, there is another side to her as well.
It does not take the reader very long to figure out that Léa's staged attitude of wanting Chéri for his looks are as false as Chéri's own indifference. She is just as in love with him as he is with her, and is almost surprised to find herself distraught enough to run away from Paris after his marriage.

Then there are other characters that are not quite as memorable, but still very well written. There is the young Edmée, who at first thinks herself lucky to be engaged to the gorgeous Chéri. But she is in fact destined to live an unhappy life with him as her spiteful husband. She was another interesting character - she hates Chéri, and yet she cannot help but love him as well. Her mother and Chéri's mother, Madame Charlotte Peloux, were also well written minor characters.

The only thing that I disliked was a minor quibble. I was annoyed at how Chéri's beauty was constantly being pointed out. I know that that was a large part of his character, but it was a bit aggravating to hear about his perfection from absolutely every character (even himself!). And how exactly can a man's knees be gorgeous?

Now for the second volume, The Last of Chéri. This sequel opens with a changed Chéri. He is somewhere between ten to twenty years older, and in between the two books he was a soldier in the war, and has continued to live an unfulfilled life with his wife Edmée, whom he has never been able to love. He is very much sobered, not quite so carefree and arrogant. And yet, we still see some shocking behavior from him, such as his thoughts of striking Edmée for no apparent reason, or his vindictive dwelling on the knowledge that he knows how to hurt his wife mentally.

Chéri has attempted to forget about Léa, plainly because her memory is too painful, and he would have always wondered what could have been.

Edmée's character is more developed, thought the author never completely lets us into her head like we see into Chéri's. She became far more interesting though - and I was impressed by her. She has coped with her marriage by obeying everything her husband says meekly, while keeping her head and never allowing herself to sink into drama and despair. By the end, I couldn't decide between two possible characters for her. Was she a spineless, stupid girl too scared of her husband to do anything about the relationship? Or had she grown into a strong, enduring woman who was only trying to get through life the best way she knew how? I have a feeling that it was the second one.

And no, Léa is not gone from this book. Like in the first book, she is not physically present except for one scene, but through-out the story, we feel her overwhelming influence. Chéri goes to see her, after years of staying away. I found it a bit sad that he found her now truly old, no longer beautiful, and a dulled woman compared to the bright, sharp spirit she had once been. But, it was inevitable, as she is about sixty now, and has obviously changed in more than just appearance.

The underlying story that follows Chéri's visit was heartbreaking. He has gone through his marriage wishing that he were married to Léa, the love of his life, instead. But their love could never be. They have been born at the wrong times - she is now an old woman, and the Léa that he loves no longer exists.
I didn't like the sad ending, even though there really wouldn't be any other conclusion that would completely fit. It wasn't what I wanted to read right before I closed the book, but I'll admit that it did make sense.

A thoughtful, memorable story.