The Woman with the Bouquet
Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt was been described as one of Europe’s most beloved authors and just a few pages into the first of the five short stories that comprise The Woman with the Bouquet, I began to seriously doubt that claim. Initially, “The Dreamer from Ostend” seemed heavy-handed and awkward in its formality, so much in fact that I found it difficult to focus on the story. However, I trudged forward, and I’m happy that I did. I blame the jerky translation, but once you get past that you’ll be drawn into the secretive world of Emma Von A, an old, “invalid” inn-keeper who shares her deepest secret and most severe heartbreak with a young writer who’s staying at her inn hoping to recover from his own love-related sadness. Family members, such as her niece, tell the writer that Emma Van A has essentially led a lonely, suicide-inducing life; a life spent dreaming and staring out windows. What they don’t know is that Emma has a burning secret, so pure and true that it’s sustained her through years of sickness and sadness.
Emma’s tale sets the tone for each story featured in The Woman with the Bouquet, a book solely comprised of emotionally stunted, brokenhearted, dejected, and insecure loners who, despite their age, don’t seem capable of detaching themselves from the difficulties associated with adulthood. With unflinching honesty, Schmitt reveals just enough about each person to shed light on their inner workings and what makes them tick.
In “Perfect Crime,” we become acquainted with Gabrielle de Sarlat, a wife and mother who’s convinced herself that her husband is doing something deeply dishonest and for a lack of a better word, shady. It’s common knowledge that he has a hiding spot in his office where he keeps a number of small chests under lock and key, the contents of which he will not share with his wife. This is a source of great unease for Gabrielle and it’s only made worse by the types of everyday annoyances that grate on your nerves after years of being married to the same person. For example, Gabrielle’s husband often refers to her as “old girl;” he believes this to be a term of endearment, while hearing it makes Gabrielle’s blood boil. When it feels as if marital bliss has flown south, many women would seek refuge in their friends or in the warm embrace of a cocktail, but Gabrielle murders her husband in a particularly cruel way. Well after his death, Gabrielle finally gets to investigate the contents of the chests in her husband’s office and what she finds are poems, letters, and other tokens of his love that he hid not out of guilt for wrongdoing, but out of embarrassment for his own sentimentality.
Each character and story in The Woman with the Bouquet brought to mind a quote from Janet Fitch’s White Oleander, in which Astrid’s imprisoned mother Ingrid tells her, “Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space... If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you'll ever do is to understand yourself...”
Now, those are depressing, unsettling words (for Schmitt’s characters) to live by.