Thursday, May 24, 2012

Waiting for a Pink Cactus To Bloom

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.

Sidonie writes,
"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.


  1. Hello Sunday,

    Are you sure that you are not a professional book critic? I have not read this piece of work by Colette, from your review it seems to be a book I would enjoy, I have it on my list!

    I hope you have a wonderful weekend, thank you for coming to visit.


  2. Elizabeth, thanks for your kind words. I used to write freelance book reviews for many different publications, but not for a long time! I hope you check out this book, I think you would love it!

  3. What a timely post. I'm currently on read number 3 of Jane Eyre. First read as a 19 year old & adored, re read in late twenties & I couldn't quite find the previous magic, now a decade later I think I may be somewhere inbetween.
    This Colette story sounds lovely, I've read Gigi & Vagabond in previous summers.

  4. Hi. Have ordered this book on account of your review - looking forward to readint it! Thought of you this week as I visited Charleston and Sissinghurst in glorious sun! For once....

  5. I agree with Elizabeth - you are my go-to book critic, and Diesel should definitely put you on their payroll. Your writing entices me to read whatever it is you love. Will be getting "Break of Day" immediately. I have re-read "Tender is the Night" and "The Age of Innocence" beginning in my 20's and do have a different take on both as I'm getting older. It's been about 5 years I believe, since I read "Tender is the Night" and I'm longing to read it again now also.

  6. Sunday, Add my name to your pack of adoring fans. I am not for sure I will ever get through my to read list thanks to your wonderful writing. I have often returned to books that spoke to me at one time or another. I always find them altered my my age. Sometimes it is a good thing, so. I read "Atlas Shrugged" for the first time in my 20s. I reread it in my 30s and 40s. I've decided to skip it this decade. Hope you have a good weekend. Bonnie

  7. I can not add more to what others have said about your gracious writing and reviews, Sunday, as I agree with each and every one. Instead, I will tell you what pleasant memories you evoked of a pleasant afternoon I spent with our younger daughter when she was a graduate student at Fuller in Pasadena. On a visit there, she and I went to see the Huntington. We weren't disappointed. I held a particularly fragrant bloom up, told her to close her eyes and smell it. I told her that whenever she caught that scent she would remember our day. She does. We were so lucky that day as there was also an exhibit of original artwork of children's illustrators. Can you imagine? I was in gardening/childhood heaven.

    Now, I really should read this book.

  8. Sunday, you really have a contagious enthusiasm. Each time I read one of your posts I add another book to my list, yet it is quickly becoming a case of too many books, too little time. Even if I don't get them read I love the snippets you share with us, your readers, and always look forward to your insight.

  9. Sunday, you've made me very curious to take a look at Colette, whom I've never read. i hope your re-reading experience is better than one I just went through. Several months ago, I re-readLawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet." When I first read them, in college, I thought they were the epitome of cool and insight and atmosphere about the post Camus, existential world. And as well, the ultimate example of world weary European sophistication, and atmospheric insight into the true nature of human relationships. Alas, the was not my experience this time. Durrell's style, which I had originally been so enamored of, I found now to be pedantic, overwritten, and purple. The characters which were once so mysterious and alluring, I now found almost trite and unbearably self-conscious. It is so interesting how time affects our experience of literature, and perceptions of the world.

  10. David, I did the very same thing. I remember loving the "Alexandria Quartet" when I was in my twenties. I went back many years later and was disappointed. I don't think I will have the same experience with Colette. I've started the book and am really enjoying it.