Date of Publication: 1910
Number of Pages: 239
Synopsis (from back cover): Largely autobiographical, La Vagabonde recalls Colette’s own years spent touring Paris music halls, taking the reader backstage and into the demimonde of Renée Néré, and aging dancer, mime, and failed writer. Around this extraordinary heroine Colette spins the first of her masterpieces, a novel that brings forth the sensual, unexpurgated perspective of a woman who struggles to choose between freedom and love.
The recently divorced Renée describes the sights, sounds, and excitement of the dance hall, the greasepaint and silk kimonos she wears as she rehearses with her burly partner, Brague, and the downward slide of a young Piaf-like singer named Jadin. And in the ensuing romance between Renée and her admirer, Maxime, Colette – in 1910 – explores male-female relationships from a startlingly contemporary point of view.
Review: This is the first full-length novel by Colette that I have read, and I was pleasantly surprised by just how lyrical and beautiful her writing is. Every passage is like a song, from the heroine’s wanderings in the park, to her laments and agonies over loving a man. One could read this book as an example of an early women’s liberation story, but I think it’s really deeper than that. In a time when women were meant to be submissive toward their husbands, Renée, having been deeply hurt and humiliated by her ex-husband, refuses to give any part of herself to a man ever again. Colette delves deep into the psychological torment that a broken heart can cause, and Renée understands that to love a man again means that she must allow him into her heart and mind, something she feels she simply cannot do. This book asks very important questions, considering the era in which it was written: Can a woman retain her freedom after marriage? Can she even pursue her own career and interests? Must she give up her whole heart to her lover? Renée is a woman who has been wounded too deeply to easily give up the freedom and independence she has cloaked herself in. The life she leads is not the typical life of a Parisian woman, but she clings to it desperately, knowing that without it she is vulnerable again, a terrifying prospect.
La Vagabonde is definitely a story about a wandering soul, searching for her place in the world, and for love’s place in her life. I would recommend this book to any fan of romance fiction, or to anyone who is, like me, wondering about their own place in the world.