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Lily of the Valley Paperback – November 1, 1997
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From Library Journal
This was Balzac's personal favorite among his writings. The novel offers the courtship of Felix and fiancee Henrietta, whose correspondence on the subject of love reveals her to be far more experienced than he thought. Romance the Balzac way.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: French
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It gets worse. The rear cover notes say the novel is set in the Loire valley. Readers will discover it is set in the valley of the Indre. The notes say Henriette is the fiancee of Felix. The reader will discover his fiancee is Natalie. As mentioned, Henriette is usually dessed in white. Thus the publishers show their deep understanding by illustrating the front cover with a painting entitled "Woman in Yellow".
I have just about given up on translations of French writers. Publishers seem to take the view that as long as people buy them any old rubbish will do. Buy the French version and a dictionary.
The French book title is "The Lily in the Valley." Appropriately, the English title change to "The Lily of the Valley" reflects her state, because she, like the plant, is tender, lovely, fragile and poisonous.
Reading this book with the understanding of what syphilis meant in the pre-penicillin age, makes this book not quite as silly as it appears to the modern reader.
This is what literary critics call a "bildungsroman", a novel of apprenticeship -or lack of it. Apparently a Romantic novel, it can also be read from the other side of the street, as an Anti-Romantic novel. The experienced reader of Balzac is surprised that here he turns out so much corniness and cheap sentimentality, until he/she finds out why at the end.
Felix de Vandenesse is the youngest child of a noble family of Touraine, in beautiful Western Central France, whose luck has been bad under the Revolution and the Napoleonic Age. Nobody loves poor Felix, especially his horrible mother, who sends him to live first with a breast-feeder and then to cruel boarding schools where he suffers from loneliness and poverty. During his return home, he attends a party where he instantly falls in love with a married woman, older than him. In fact, he falls so in love that he kisses her shoulder, to the astonishment and rejection of the surprised lady. Felix then falls into depression and his mother sends him to the countryside with some rich friends. And... surprise surprise, the neighbor of the friends is none other than the lady and her husband and two permanently sick kids. Felix befriends the Mortsauf family and starts a strange, indeed sick, romance with his beloved, Henriette, Madame de Mortsauf. It's a platonic, repressed and tormented love affair. The four memebers of the Mortsauf family are among the strangest and most complex in all of literature, especially the Count and Henriette. The former is an asylum lunatic suffering from bipolar depressive disease, big time. He is hypochondriac, coleric, verbally violent, blackmailer and unsympathetic, and he makes life hell to his wife and kids. Henriette is also an emotional blackmailer, a religious fanatic, martyr by vocation, overprotecting mother and a lover with the Wendy complex: she feels herself to be the mother Felix never really had. The kids are two morbid creatures with a foot in the tomb, who appear and disappear like the children in Henry James's "Turn of the Screw". The novel is written in the form of a long letter Felix writes to his current lover many years after the events.
After some months by Henriette's side, young -and virgin- Felix leaves for Paris, where he will enjoy contacts in high places, provided by Henriette's parents. When he leaves, Felix carries a wonderful letter written by Henriette, in which she gives him sound advice about how to deal with the world of politics, sex, and business. It's one of the best parts of the novel. Through the years, Felix comes and goes keeping the platonic relationship with her. But then he gets an English lover and it all goes to the dogs. The scene of the confrontation with Henriette on the subject of the sexuallly greedy lover comes right out of a bad soap-opera: "I enjoy her body but it's you I really love" , "I'll never be yours but then no other can be".
In the end cruel and funny, it is a little piece of psychological penetration, a dissertation on human nature, an examination of love, and the analysis of a twisted passion.
Once, twice, more than six times and then every few sentences, I had to stop and sob while trying to read the end of the book, about the last 20 pages or so--put the book down and walk away. I thought I never would be able to finish this literary masterpiece. It's based on Balzac's real-life sweetheart, and he writes like a man in love. He calls her, "Lily in the Valley."
And then, incredibly, at the very, very end, I burst into laughter. Balzac is a master writer. And a Frenchman. France, land of legendary kings and of legendary love affairs.
--interestingly of note--the book discusses Old World manners and can suggest great insights for the modern reader.