Partly because of its wonderful cover design, we picked up The Most Beautiful Book in the World by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. He’s big in his native France as a dramatist and a fiction writer. In this collection of eight stories, he sketches the lives of several women—a fabulously wealthy divorcee, a cloistered widow who adores her favorite author, a fussy wife and her laissez-faire husband, etc. Each of them remembers a torrid love affair that they’ll never get over, and somehow, in every story, a successful, unhappy person meets a humble, impoverished person and learns the true meaning of happiness. In other words, this book is really French.
In “Odette Toulemonde,” the aforementioned widow is vacationing on the beach when she re-connects with the author she adores.
On Easter Sunday, Odette found herself looking out at the North Sea for the first time. Intimidated, she sketched drawings in the sand. The vastness of the water, the sky, the beach, all seemed a luxury beyond her means; it was as if she were partaking of a splendor to which she had no right.
Suddenly, she felt a burning sensation on her neck, and found herself thinking intensely about Balthazar. When she turned around, there he stood, on the dike, holding his son by the hand.
They were overjoyed to see each other again, but cautiously gentle, fearful of hurting one another.
“I came to find you, Odette, because my son needs lessons. Are you still giving them?”
“Lessons in happiness.”
That story was made into a movie.
In “The Intruder,” a French housewife named Odile spends all her time cooped up in the house, and goes a little crazy.
She suddenly felt an urge to chat with Fanny, her best friend. How long had it been since she’d called her? With this heat wave of a summer, she’d lost her sense of time somewhat. Like everyone else in the country, no doubt she was suffering more than she realized from the sweltering heat, despite the refuge of her shady apartment. She reached for her address book and then flung it aside.
“I don’t need to check Fanny’s number. If there is one that I do know by heart, it’s that one.”
She dialed the number and a sleepy voice answered.
“Excuse me for disturbing you. I’d like to speak to Fanny.”
“Fanny Desprées. Have I got the wrong number?’
“Fanny is dead, Madam.”
“Ten days ago. Dehydration.”
It turns out Odile is afflicted with dementia, and has no idea how old she is, or what year it is.
Both of these stories are so well-worn and predictable that any attempt to evaluate them in relation to contemporary American fiction gives us a fit of the giggles. But it’s a fun book to read—like opening up a new edition of classic folktales. Schmitt offers the right details—the leather gloves of a Rolls-Royce chauffeur, the hairy chest of a gay hairdresser—and keeps the stories moving. The Most Beautiful Book in the World is comforting. Its characters embody distinct philosophies of life, and their journeys inevitably veer toward deep pits of sorrow and majestic peaks of illumination.
Is there something about France that elevates a book like this to “International Bestseller” status?
And then we have Fabio, the protagonist of “The Barefoot Princess.” By coincidence, he returns to the Italian village where he once had an affair with a goddess named Donatella. The night they shared was magical.
Once they were outside the cobbled streets of the historic village, beneath a veiled moon, he saw that she was barefoot. She noticed his surprise and anticipated his question. “Yes, I feel more free, like this.”
Her words, her manner were so natural that no response was possible.
It was a magnificent walk, on an evening where perfumes of jasmine, fennel, and anise arose from between the cool city walls. Arm in arm they climbed silently toward the highest part of the citadel. There they came upon a five-star inn, the most luxurious place imaginable.
They headed toward the grand staircase leading up to the rooms, and she escorted Fabio to her suite, the most luxurious chambers he had ever seen, an exuberance of velvet and silk, enhanced with embroidery, Persian rugs, ivory trays, marquetry seats, crystal carafes, and silver goblets.
She closed the door behind her and, untying the wispy scarf she had around her neck, conveyed beyond a doubt that she was offering herself to him.
At the story’s end, Fabio learns that Donatella, all those years ago, was not a princess after all, simply a village girl. But she was treated like a princess by everyone in town because they pitied her, because… she was dying of leukemia! Ta-da.
It’s like a bodice-ripper crossed with Chicken Soup for the Soul.
After that little gem of a scene, it’s pretty funny to read the published reviews from Europe.
“The Most Beautiful Book in the World is as affecting as it is intelligent. […] Eight stories, parables on the idea of a future, filled with redeeming optimism. Truth and beauty are here brought together. The Most Beautiful Book in the World […] has all the visual beauty and power of major literary works.”—Jean-Rami Barland, Lire Magazine (France)
“A born story-teller with a talent for telling ostensibly simple tales that nevertheless suggest a philosophy for life, Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt [in The Most Beautiful Book in the World] takes the lid off the lives of eight women in eight contrasting portraits, each time with thought- provoking piquancy and suspense leading to an arresting and delightful end.”—La Libre Belgique (Belgium)
“Melancholy but edifying orator, light yet profound raconteur (like Diderot), Eric- Emmanuel Schmitt squeezes goodness from sorrow, places language, the word, on an altar, and derives from reality books that sell millions of copies.”—Il Giornale (Italy)
Does fiction fill different roles in different societies?
Is everyone in France a lunatic?
Did you ever have a romance that will haunt you forever?
Is your life a little too complicated right now, and what you really need is an affair with a simple-minded country person to get you back in the game?
Can we all go to France?