Lily has come to southern France in search of a new perspective, hoping that the sun's soft rays and the fragrant sea breezes will provide a relaxing respite from the demands of her lively daughter and her family's Idaho cattle ranch. Two years after her husband's sudden death, in the house that's been in his family for generations, she finally finds some stolen weeks to make sense of the past. To Madame Olivetti, her cranky old manual typewriter, Lily entrusts all her secrets, pounding out the story of the men she loved, the betrayals she endured, the losses she still regrets. And with the companionship of Yves, the seductive handyman who comes by to make repairs, Lily comes closer to understanding her exhilarating past and to discovering she has a new story to tell, one about the delights of starting over.
Needing a break from the demands of family and her cattle ranch business, Idaho widow Lily Crisp decides to take a vacation in the South of France. While settling in at La Pierre Rouge, the home she inherited after her husband's passing, Lily journals her French-inspired / influenced thoughts and experiences using an old typewriter she's dubbed "Madame Olivetti". It's through the "Madame Olivetti papers" that the reader also learns the story of not only Lily's relationship with her late husband (how they met, how their romance developed, struggles in later years, etc) but also her more recent bedroom escapades with a certain French hottie handyman by the name of Yves Lebrun. Yves arrives one day to start work on repairing the roof of La Pierre Rouge, but over time his down-to-earth perspective on things (once Lily deciphers it through his limited English) helps our girl unravel twisted up mysteries within her heart and mind... by way of her lower regions ;-)
While much of this novel comes off very fluffy and surface level, there is something to be said for the topics it quietly addresses: the struggles of rebuilding a life after a spouse of decades passes away, the tricky navigation of dating after the age of 40, the side eye a woman might get for being so bold as to date an obviously younger man (Lily writes of her annoyance at the looks she gets for being in the Over 50 crowd but still happily living as a woman a good 20 years younger). There's something here that could easily appeal to those who've had late in life romances themselves. Though I'm years away from those years myself, I still found a portion of Lily's story relatable when she speaks of younger years, having had her heart shattered over a failed romance but how that pain eventually led her to discovering how to open her heart again, which in turn led her to meeting her then-future husband, Paul. My romance with my own husband unfolded in a similar way, in that respect. I even found myself nodding in understanding to Lily writing of her first time sleeping with Paul: "a sexual exorcism of one ex-wife and an ex-lover." That sense of joy and even relief, when you get that inkling in your mind that maybe, just maybe, you got things right this time!
"I think she fell in love with my love for her. I was pretty well gone and I made her feel like an infinitely fascinating woman -- which of course I thought she was."
The slow build of Lily and Paul's relationship made for sweet reading. Author Annie Vanderbilt also writes in a layer of realism to Lily and Paul's later years that I could appreciate. Vanderbilt illustrates that sure, over years of being together, doldrums can set in, things can get predictable, which can sometimes lead people to make poor choices in their fervent attempts to shake things up in their lives. Even the most outwardly perfect couplings take dedicated work behind the scenes to hold that foundation together.
He kissed her lightly on the cheek , then turned and walked down the alleyway toward his car. It's over, she thought, it can get no worse.
Blessedly, the future is all delusion. Only the past is known, and even then we tamper, we distort. But that moment she saw clearly: the heart's great pulse of desire, undiluted. Nothing more. So she watched him leave, and when he had left, she closed and latched the blue door behind her.
All in all, some nice observances about long term (I'm talking decades here) relationships. The writing has a nice, easy flow and the contents within these "secret papers" will likely resonate, even if just a small bit, with a good many female readers... at least those past their freshman college years!