Eight stories about a variety of women from French playwright/novelist Schmitt (Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran & Oscar and the Lady in Pink, 2004, etc.).
Several start with intriguing puzzles. Who is the old woman repeatedly breaking into Odile’s Paris apartment? (The answer in “The Intruder” sheds an imaginative light on sickness.) What is the secret at the heart of Isabelle’s apparently successful marriage, and why should it begin to unravel at her hairdresser’s (“Every Reason to be Happy”)? The title story’s question is in a class of its own. The setting is a Soviet-era women’s re-education camp in Siberia. The new arrival, Olga, has a wild tangle of hair: Why is that so important? All the women long to communicate with their faraway daughters, and it’s deeply moving that the most ordinary among them hits on the perfect solution, revealed only in an epilogue. Schmitt’s tales echo Maupassant’s with their lean narratives, surprise endings, mordant humor and psychological acuity. That humor and acuity sparkle in “A Fine Rainy Day.” Hélène is a perfectionist and a malcontent; Antoine sees only the good. Their marriage is counterintuitive, yet it works. The eponymous “Odette Toulemonde,” a humble Belgian shop assistant, is the devoted fan of a potboiler novelist with big problems. Odette shows him the way out, moderating a meeting with the novelist, his publisher and his difficult wife. Even the slighter stories have their charms. A touring actor returns to the Sicilian village where, years before, a beautiful young woman invited him to a fabulous restaurant and then to her bed (“The Barefoot Princess”). A discarded mistress picks the wrong target for her revenge in “The Forgery,” which features a Picasso, while an old beach bum’s really bad paintings fetch big bucks in “Wanda Winnipeg”; the world’s wealthiest woman is repaying, finally, her first lover.
Fairy tales and realistic studies happily coexist in this elegant collection.