5 of 6
320 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux

There is a scene, near the end of Cheri, that is (to me) one of the cruelest in literature: 25-year-old rake Freddy Peloux (known as Cheri), having fled his wife to return to his much-older lover, Lea, awakens in the morning and, pretending to be asleep, spies on Lea at her dressing table: "Not yet powdered, a meagre twist of hair at the back of her head, double chin and raddled neck, she was exposing herself rashly to the unseen observer." He experiences "the vague uncomfortable feeling of having done something reprehensible." He puts it out of his mind, dresses and goes downstairs. But it is the moment of doubt that begins to unravel his confidence.

Colette sees deep into the heart of male vanity: First he spies on his lover, and judges her, and then he forgets what he has done. And, later, when a simple conversation of whether to have another piece of toast begins to spin out of control, he reduces her to tears; he looks upon her once more: "Cheri found intact amidst this wreckage of beauty the lovely commanding nose and the eyes as blue as a blue flower." He tells her that after months of misery, he comes back and...but he is too frightened of his own thoughts. Lea is not; calmly, she finishes his sentence: "You come back here, and find an old woman." It is the truth he is unwilling to admit to himself. And, once this is admitted, she handles the rest of the scene with grace and dignity. For Colette is not showing us the tragedy of old women, the devastation of a once-beautiful lady, that all-too-common source of pity. She is showing us the tragedy of young men. As we discover in The Last of Cheri, he is a fool to have left her, to have doubted her or judged her. And yet he cannot help himself; he cannot stay. Incredibly, our pity ends up going to roguish Cheri. Lea makes it through; it is young Freddy who is marked for life.