* Spoiler warning - Le Toutounier continues the story of characters from Duo. This review will therefore contain some spoilers *
Duo portrays an uncomfortable time in the marriage of Alice and Michel as they try to navigate the difficult fact of her previous infidelity. They work together to put on shows and work is important to Alice as she was brought up with her sisters to understand the importance of earning their keep. The potential disintegration of her marriage therefore poses a double threat as it could also limit her ability to work.
The book doesn’t detail an explosive argument, instead we’re witness to the intensely uncomfortable days where they’re being overly careful around each other, admitting difficult truths and occasionally behaving spitefully. Their gentle breakdown is unbearable but contrasts to the suggestion that Maria, their servant, is being abused by her husband. There is also some subtle suggestion that there may be some force used between Michel and Alice too but it is never detailed. A theme that will continue into Le Toutounier is that of keeping up appearances and the toll it can take.
Le Toutounier follows on from Duo – Alice is still in mourning for Michel and has returned to Paris and two of her sisters, Hermine and Colombe. In some ways they seem close but it is also shown that they do not pry into each other’s lives. Even when Hermine bursts into tears during a meal they do not press her as to why, preferring instead to pretend nothing has happened. Both Colombe and Hermine have fallen for married men and almost envy Alice for having lost her husband to death rather than choice. This is clearly a callous opinion and Alice feels that her sisters don’t feel they can behave with her as they used to. They don’t discuss Michel’s death or the events preceeding it.
I found Le Toutounier a more absorbing read than Duo. The sisters’ relationship with each other is curious and their dalliances with married men are generally kept at the periphery until absolutely necessary to be brought to the fore, fitting in with the assertion that Colette was generally disinterested in her male characters. Their approach to sexual relations is not what you might expect – they do not crave marriage and seemingly feel no remorse for their affairs, at one point it is suggested that one takes pleasure in knowing the misery they cause. Colombe is nonetheless quite innocent and Alice always insisted on twin beds in her marriage, contradicting the bohemian lifestyle suggested by some readers.
Their cramped living conditions and financial struggles are an interesting insight into the lives of unmarried women in the first half of the twentieth century. An intriguing novella in which much depth is hinted at allowing the reader to fill in their backstories from the snippets Colette cleverly reveals.