Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Book Review: Victoire by Maryse Conde

It's been a very long time since I simply picked up a book from the library and commenced to reading it.   Instead, I have been choosing to get recommendations from people, read reviews or skim the bestseller lists.  This is mainly because I wanted to make sure I didn't waste my limited time reading things that I really wouldn't like or that weren't really worth much.  Despite relying on reviews though, I still ended up reading some duds, most recently that unfortunate novel Twilight

Anyway, two weeks ago I randomly picked up a book at the library:  Victoire: My Mother's Mother by Maryse Conde.  I have not read any of Ms. Conde's other works or any reviews of her work so I wasn't sure of the style or if I would like it.  I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed this read.

Victoire: My Mother's Mother is Ms. Conde imagining what the life of her grandmother might have been like using bits and pieces that she learned while growing up and information she gathered from (often fruitless) investigative work.  Victoire, a mixed-race, very-light skinned and gray-eyed orphan (her mother dies during childbirth and it is unclear who her father is or was) is born during the post-slavery era.  From birth, Victoire is treated with contempt (possibly because of how close-to-white she is).  She spends her life as a domestic servant.  In the service of the first family she works for, Victoire becomes pregnant and after a difficult labor and delivery, gives birth to a baby girl.  She almost dies but recovers and learns that she will have no other children.  She is run off after the identity of the baby's father is revealed and is mistreated terribly at the hands of her father.  She moves on with her life, risking everything to leave the island where she born to try to make a better life for her daughter.  She finds employment with a wealthy white Creole family and it is there that she discovers her gift: making magic in the kitchen.  Conde likens Victoire's cooking artistry to that of a writer and describes in great detail some of Victoire's elaborate culinary masterpieces. She becomes a valued member of the family she works for:  a friend to the lady of the house, a lover to the master of the house, and a surrogate grandmother to the children--all this is a total affront to her own daughter who grows up feeling ashamed and, to a large extent, unloved. 

What's interesting is that even though Victoire: My Mother's Mother is purportedly a book about her grandmother, Conde tells us an equally intriguing story of her mother, Jeanne.  That relationship between mother and daughter is fraught with tensions and filled with things left unsaid.  Victoire, tremendously humbled and alienated by her illegitimate birth status and her illiteracy rarely advocates for herself and you, the reader, often wish she would stand up!  This is in sharp contrast to Jeanne who fights desperately to distance herself from all those things her mother represents.  She struggles to reposition herself socially to the detriment of their relationship.  It is only towards the end that we start to see more of a compassion from Jeanne toward Victoire.

I was especially intrigued by this book because I have one interesting character in my family history too:  my grandfather's father.  I don't really know much about my family history having grown up in the States but I did gather one little snippet of information about my great-grandfather:  that he was a polygamist, that my grandfather was the only son of his youngest wife and that she was not treated well.  Supposedly, this is why my grandfather was so driven and why he was so successful.  Like Conde, I would love to ask questions, investigate, learn more, and if I can't figure out the real story, at least imagine what it would have been. 

My only complaint about Victoire:  My Mother's Mother is the translation.  I felt that too much of the text was still in French.  I realize that it's difficult to translate some things but I feel like the translator (Conde's husband, by the way) could have made more of an effort or, at the very least, added footnotes.  My rusty French skills could not keep up and I know I missed some things which was a shame.


liberationtheory said...

This book looks fascinating!! I will be adding it to my "must read" list.

InMySolitude said...

Thank you for reminding me of this author! I randomly picked up one of her books, Tree of Life, a few years ago at a used book store. I'm from the Caribbean as well and was surprised I'd never heard of her...needless to say I really enjoyed it! Will pick this one up too. I must say, coming up on your entry has made my day :)

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