The Claudine Novels
There are four novels in this collection: Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married and Claudine and Annie. However, these novels, read in succession, make up a single story that I read as a single book, and I think that one gets the most complete experience by reading them in that way.
The four books are about a French girl named Claudine who grows up in a small town and, as you might guess, goes to school there and then moves to Paris, and eventually gets married (and, yup, this is what happens in the first three books). Claudine is an attractive, intelligent, headstrong and somewhat spoiled girl, who has some difficulty adjusting to each of these new situations.
The major tension in Claudine at School is the close relationship between the headmistress of her school and a young female teacher - a relationship that the school comes to discover is sexual in nature. Claudine is disturbed by this, partially because of her own attraction to the young teacher and partially because of her hatred of the headmistress. This book is characterized by a number of exploits on Claudine's part to embarrass the two women and make trouble in the school. The groundwork for Claudine's later introspections about what she needs out of love are laid here.
In the following two books, Claudine explores her own sexual feelings, both towards men and towards women. She tries to figure out what characteristics allow her to love someone, and what type of treatment she expects from those she loves. While Claudine never explores this connection herself, it is interesting to read about her desire for power and guidance in a relationship in light of her family: Claudine never knew her mother and her father is oblivious to her existence, though he provides for her physical needs.
The final book is a counterpoint to those that came before. The story is told from the perspective of Anne, a casual acquaintance of Claudine, and we see very little of Claudine in this book, though we hear a lot about her. Anne is married to a man who controls every aspect of her life and tells her exactly what to do, how to think, what to wear, and who to talk to every day. At the start of the book, her husband leaves on a several month trip and Anne has to learn to live without him, with help from his sister. This sister introduces Anne to a world of wives who flirt but remain faithful, wives who have affairs, women who are obedient wives, and women who don't marry and run their own lives. Anne observes these women and discusses some of their choices with Claudine as she tries to decide what type of relationship and, more generally, what type of life she wants for herself.
The first three books in isolation describe a woman who is trying to figure out how to make sense of her physical desires and merge them with her need for support and constancy in her life. Taken together with the final book, I see the Claudine novels making the point that women (and one assumes, people in general) need to first determine for themselves what they really want out of life and their relationships and only after that can they begin to join their life with someone else's, or make the decision that they can't do that.
It's interesting to note that these books, while attributed to Colette, a French woman writing around 1900, there is apparently also evidence that her husband wrote some if not all of the books. The introduction, written by Colette, claims that they were written at the urging of her husband in the hopes that he could, at least, take pieces out of them to sell.
The biggest flaw with these books is that the writing is almost awkward in places. It isn't clear how much that is the fault of the translation. It's partially explained by the fact that the books are written in the style of a journal (which I enjoyed a lot), but even so I sometimes found the writing too flat. Large portions of the book also read like a romance novel, with a fair amount of sex and lots of couples in various stages of coming together, cheating on each other with other couples, and breaking up. Besides Claudine (and later Annie), many of the characters are undeveloped and shallow, though this can also be explained by the journal style of the books. But the plot is interesting enough, and there is enough of a coherent theme that the books are entertaining if not deep and do give the reader some food for thought. So, for that, I give them a '+'.
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