Title: The Vagabond
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1910)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link
Renée Néré, the protagonist of Colette’s The Vagabond, wants you to know that she is perfectly fine being alone. She left her husband, a philandering artist whom she loved deeply, and decided to earn her living on the stage. She dances in Vaudeville acts in early 20th-century Paris, living with her bulldog, Fossette, and determinedly avoiding entangling herself in a new relationship. Though it’s not always glamorous, she enjoys her life. Her mentor and dance partner, Brague, is supportive but tough. She describes everyone around her in colorful language. For instance, she says that one of her fellow performers has “a heart like that of a dog without an owner, prepared to love anyone who’ll adopt him.”
Renée is the exact opposite of that. She enjoys spending time with her friend, Hamond, and together they bemoan the tragedies of their failed marriages. But love is forcing its way into her life as, after a performance, Maxime Dufferein-Chautel invades her dressing room. She shoos him away as best she can and dismissively nicknames him the Big Ninny. (I read a newer translation and found out that in the previous translation he was the Big-Noodle, which I think I might prefer.) As time goes on, aided by Hamond, the Big Ninny starts to work his way into Renée’s reluctant heart.
Just as Renée and the Big Ninny seem to be getting closer, Brague tells Renée that he planned a six-week working tour around France for them for a large sum of money, if she’s interested. She decides to go, convincing the Big Ninny not to go along with them, as travelling is not romantic and would not be the best way to test a new relationship. From each stop, she writes the Big Ninny letters, punctuating them with her own thoughts told solely to the reader. By this point, it’s hard not to feel close to Renée, to want what’s best for her, and both the reader and our narrator slowly come to the realization of that future, the only future possible for her. Is that future giving love a second chance with the Big Ninny? Or is it another working tour, this time in South America, with Brague? You’ll have to read it to find out.
Colette wrote The Vagabond in a chatty style that makes Renée feel like a friend, someone you made tea for and who is sitting at your kitchen table, commiserating with you about life without being overly sentimental. It also presents an unflinching account of what life was like for a dancer living in Paris at the time. It’s charming and doesn’t show it’s age one bit, much like Renée. I’ve read some of Colette’s more famous work, but this one is my favorite. It’s a story about what it’s like to be a 30-something woman, long before Bridget Jones, but seeming as current today as when it was first published over 100 years ago.