REVIEW: Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s The Woman with the Bouquet

The title ofEric-Emmanuel Schmitt’sforthcoming story collection, The Woman with the Bouquet, sounds like it might refer to a painting, and there is a quality to Mr.Schmitt’s writing that takes one back to a time when photography had yet to make the painted portrait obsolete. With this particular portrait, Mr. Schmitt aims to depict a woman in love, a woman with a secret, a woman whose heart is a mystery of passion and longing, capable of great happiness and deep sorrow. That is no small task, and Mr. Schmitt acquits himself admirably, even if his style can, at times, feel too formal. One of Mr. Schmitt’s chief strengths is the ability to precisely chronicle the shifts in his characters’ mental and emotional states, a skill he employs to illuminate the changeable nature of the mind and heart. If his stories could be said to have antagonists, they would be intellectual and spiritual rigidity, intolerance, and, for lack of a better term, low self-esteem. This last afflicts at least three of his stories’ heroines at one or another time in their lives, with profound consequences, and while Mr. Schmitt treats some of them with more kindness than others, in the end each is able to see herself as beautiful. That this is invariably achieved with the help of a man’s love can, I suppose, be forgiven, as Mr. Schmitt’s intentions, like those of an earnest therapist or self-help guru, are clearly good. The collection’s subtitle might have been, “Woman, Love Thyself.” Indeed, the unmistakable feeling of tender affection for their subject that pervades these stories helps one overlook the often formulaic plot development (it would seem quite fresh were it written a century earlier) and the occasionally heavy-handed moral didacticism. The author seems to have deliberately chosen anachronistic, clunky narrative vehicles — which are, however, tried and true, and keep you reading even as you foresee their resolution — as a reflection of his sense that what’s truly important about these stories is not their plot twists, but the message of positivism (and the accompanying object lesson) they are intended to deliver. To his credit, in the end Mr. Schmitt does not presume to have unraveled every mystery of a woman’s heart. In the final, eponymous story, he gallantly acknowledges his helplessness before its secrets, and his awe at its fierce, boundless strength.

The Woman with the Bouquet is forthcoming from Europa Editions on August 31, 2010.

-Ilya Lyashevsky lives in Brooklyn, where he writes fiction and software. His current project, combining technology and literature, can be found here.

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