When I started reading this book it hit me how many stories we tell are about beginnings. The beginning of an adventure, going through the wardrobe or down a rabbit hole. They are about the beginnings (and ends) of wars and fights. The beginning of a relationships. We rarely see stories about endings. The reason I started to think about this is because Chéri is about the end of a relationship. 49-year old Léa and 24-year old Chéri are at the beginning of the story ending their 7 year old love affair. The reason they are ending it is because Chéri’s mother is marrying him off to a 19 year old girl. The story, set in the early 20th century, is about how these two people manage to let go of what they both thought was a silly sexual thing.
The book is a character study. The reviews I’ve read about Colette points out that this is where she shines. The simplicity of the action, a relationship ending, turns the focus to the only thing of interest; the people. Colette has a way of describing the emotional side in a very believable way. About heartache, about loss, but also the contemplation of ageing. Léa contemplates her age, about how she has wasted so many years on Chéri when she could have had 2-3 small affairs like she did before him. She also thinks about what it means to be a woman of 49 and therefore being forced to settle for someone who is 40. She is used to youth in her lovers and while this is not directly stated, it makes me wonder if she is reflecting her own youth in them. That because they are young, she feels young. Chéri is also ageing. He is getting married and have to focus on the things married grown-ups have to focus on. This is visualised by how people address him, either by his pet-name Chéri and his given name Fred. There are a lot of hints towards a mother/son relationship in how Léa and Chéri talk about their relationship. This again could be a sign of the fear of ageing. Having a young child to care for and having a mother to care for you is a sign of a certain age. The age Chéri and Lea might wish they were.
She was on her guard, full of mistrust for an enemy she had never known: grief. She had just said goodbye to thirsty years of easy living: years spent pleasantly, intent often on love, sometimes on money. This had left her, at almost fifty, still young and defenceless. – V
By report this fear of ageing mimicked Colette’s real fear. Apparently she had a facelift and several other cosmetic alterations, and went into a relationship with her much younger step-son when she was done with the book. The book was meant as a way of looking into the future for Colette. How would she deal with having an affair with a man half her age?
At the same time as the book is mainly about the end, there is also a beginning here. The relationship between Fred (as his wife calls him) and his wife Edmée.
“Do I have a separate room? Don’t I make love to you well?”
She hesitated, smiling with exquisite suspicion.
“Do you call that love, Fred?”
“There are other words for it, but you wouldn’t appreciate them.”
“What you call love… isn’t it possible that it may be, really, a… kind… of alibi?” – VII
What does she mean by alibi? It’s never really clear, it’s more a way for her to point out that she notices something is going on though she doesn’t know what. What is interesting is how this scene fits into the character of Edmée. Edmée is the essential other woman by being the opposite of Léa. Young, docile and patient. Edmée is talked about as a piece of furniture that is just there and good to have. Yet, in this scene she does show she will get a mind of her own. Kind of, maybe. She does speak up to him at times. She is timid when doing so, but we don’t know if that is due to her age, her insecurity with Fred or her temperament. There is a sequel, The last of Chéri, that I haven’t read. While I don’t think I will read it, as Chéri was enough, I’m almost tempted just to see what happens to Edmée. While I don’t think she will become Léa, I don’t think she is supposed to be. But maybe she can be a stronger person like Léa.
It’s the ending of Chéri that is used as example of the brilliance of Colette. While I some times was on the fence during the book, the end was absolutely wonderful. I have heard people complain about books purely recommended due to the ending and I agree. This book is interesting due to how she describes the people and their interactions to one another. If you are interested in characters, Colette will have a lot to show you through the entire short book. Still that ending. Pathos, oh the pathos.