Recently I was thinking about a book that I loved when I was younger -- the beautiful and lyrical "Break of Day" by the French novelist Colette. Colette was in her mid-fifties when she wrote this book. Her second marriage had ended and she had bought a house in St. Tropez, when it was still a sleepy fishing village. The novel's theme is a woman's return to independence as she gathers strength and inspiration from the beauty and peace of her natural surroundings. The main character (Colette -- this book is based on her life) quotes a letter that her mother wrote at the age of 76 in response to an invitation to visit her daughter. Although Sidonie would love to see her beloved daughter, she declines to visit and spend a week with her because she is waiting for her rare pink cactus to bloom, an event that only happens every four years.
"I am already a very old woman, and if I went away when my pink cactus is about to flower, I am certain I shouldn't see it flower again."
Colette wrote about her mother, who died the following year,
"Whenever I feel myself inferior to everything about me, threatened by my own mediocrity, frightened by the discovery that a muscle is losing its strength, a desire its power or a pain the keen edge of its bite, I can still hold up my head and say to myself: 'I am the daughter of the woman who wrote that letter.'"
I remember reading this book in my twenties when I moved to Malibu. I read it during that first summer when I spent every free moment at the beach. Colette's descriptions of the South of France and her Mediterranean summer were seductive and I related to her feelings about the beauty and peace of nature, the beach, her daily rituals and all the sensual delights that she wrote about. The narrator is in a relationship with a much younger man, and at the same time coming to terms with getting older. It was an important book for me then and even though I haven't read it for many years, I will never forget how much I loved it.
My plan is to reread "Break of Day" and find out if I still feel the same way about this book. Since I am now closer in age to the narrator (she is in her fifties) I have a feeling that I will respond in a different way. I am sure that I will still love the beauty of the writing and the sense of place that Colette establishes -- the lush descriptions of the coast and the sea, the earthy foods, the warmth of the sun, and the pleasures of life in the south of France. But now I may understand better the narrator's empathy with her mother's response to the invitation -- her decision to stay home and wait for her cactus plant to flower. It should be a lovely journey to find out. This is a beautiful book about a mother-daughter relationship and when I told my daughters about it, they asked me to get them a copy.
Have you read this book? Have you returned to books that you loved when you were younger and discovered that you reacted differently when you were older? The way we relate to books is often an indicator of where we are in life.
I went to the Huntington Library in Pasadena on Monday with some friends to see the gardens. Some inner compass must have steered me there because the first place we went was the beautiful and evocative Desert Garden. As we wandered through this wonderful retreat, I paid close attention to the flowering cacti. They reminded me of Colette. In fact, the entire garden could have been in the South of France. Isn't it funny how connected our experiences can be -- thinking about Colette and a flowering cactus led me to a walk through this garden filled with flowering cacti. And there was such beauty there! I can understand waiting for a cactus to bloom.