Cheri and the Last of Cheri by Colette has been on my “to read” list since I was an adolescent and my mother bought me a copy while we were browsing The Strand bookstore. I tried to read it at the time but I think it’s a good thing that I did not get excited enough to read it at the time because I know I could not have appreciated it as much as I do now.
What a wonderful pair of novellas. In the first, Cheri, we are introduced to Chéri and Léa. He is a bit of a playboy, a pampered child of a former courtesan; she is a family friend and also a former courtesan. Their relationship begins merely as a distraction but lasts longer than either could have predicted in spite of a large age difference. However, the story begins, not when they fall in love but when Chéri announces that he is to be married. Léa’s response is publicly accepting but she is devastated, realizing too late how deeply her feelings for the younger man had taken root. He, in the meantime, tries to settle into a domestic lifestyle for which he is emotionally and experientially ill-prepared.
The second novella picks up a few years later, following the Great War. Chéri has been to war, has witnessed the devastation of violence, and exhibits all of the post-war existential frustration and confusion. His relationships with his mother and wife are neither more nor less complicated as he drifts to find meaning in a world that has irrevocably changed for him.
I am so glad that Rob and I watched the movie which was based on the first of the two novellas. I’m even more grateful I chose to read them both. Although the first can and does hold up on its own, the second needs the former to have its full emotional impact. And it packs a punch. I actually exclaimed aloud, I was so surprised yet completely unsurprised. The introduction to my particular edition, written by Judith Thurman puts both the novellas and the novelist in a context that I found fascinating. Colette led a very interesting, even provocative life. She manages to put much of this on the page without ever losing focus on her intention to write a story that the reader will not forget. I have no doubt I will not forget these stories any time soon.