Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: The Last Rendezvous by Anne Plantagenet

A fictionalized account of French Romantic poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore's life, this felt to me like I was reading underwater. It was muted and slow. Told in chapters alternating between the young Marceline and the older, more jaded Marceline this is very definitely a tale of an unconventional woman, the only female poet writing amongst a sea of luminaries in France at the time. The novel opens with the older Marceline having spent another afternoon with her lover, Henri, detailing the thrill and the horror of her feelings surrounding this vital affair. How she came to be so torn about this infidelity that fuels her best works of poetry unspools as the book progresses.

As a young girl, Marceline is thrust onto the stage in order to support her family, an emotionally fragile mother who leaves her father for her lover and then her alcoholic father and brother to whom Marceline's loyalty never wavers. The chapters of her early life in the theater, the death of her first child before she was more than a child herself, and her eventual meeting and marriage to her husband, fellow actor Prosper Valmore neatly develop the character of this woman who stands outside the bounds of polite society. Interleaved with these chapters are chapters telling of her adult life, the peripatetic existence she and Valmore must live because of the vagaries of the theater-going audiences in France, the financial worries attendent with this life, and the raising of children in such uncertainty. These later in life chapters also detail the ups and downs of her obsessive affair with Henri, the yearning and distance pervading her writing, earning her fame as a poet.

The novel is bursting with elaborate introspection on Marceline's part, emotional and fraught. It seemed to me to be overwrought in many places and Marceline evoked little sympathy in me as a reader, coming off as a fairly cold character despite these professed ardent feelings. In spite of my lack of engagement with the novel, I did think that the circular ending to the book was magnificent and finely wrought. As for the poetry appended to the book, I was fairly unmoved by it. I'm not certain if that is down to the translation, which makes the poetry seem simple and unpolished, or if it is because I have a long standing block against poetry. I do think that many other people will find this far more to their taste than I did. It is well-placed historically in terms of everyday life but those looking for mentions of the major upheavals in France at the time with be disappointed. Fans of poetry will probably enjoy this imagined glimpse into the not terribly easy life of a once-acclaimed French Romantic poet.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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