Seeing Colette by Yon Walls
After a fatal epidemic, a young Colette Stonethrower flees her village to a life as an orphanage guardian, until another tragedy changes everything. As she leaves again on faith, migrating far from the place of her birth, she meets a talented, idealistic stranger and makes a friend from a foreign land who becomes her trusted confidant.
While her new life reveals her purpose—fighting for the working poor and the destitute, exposing corruption and advocating for the arts—Colette encounters the merciless genesis of urban industrialization that marks the American era of mass consumption and machination. She also witnesses the beginnings of an artistic renaissance, forbidden love, the outbreak of World War I, and encounters the blossoming of a love like no other.
Yet, despite her struggles and some good fortune, Colette also inherits something that will endure the generations. Set at the beginning of the last century—written lyrically in prose, sometimes like a delicate poem or an impressionist narrative, with surprising characters that enter and exit as in a dream—Seeing Colette is a novella to sense and savor.
*I converted the ebook for the author
Seeing Colette is a beautifully written novella, with lyrical prose that provides vivid imagery. Every paragraph is pretty to read, such as this one from Part One of the book:
As she spoke, he imagined a stone thrown into glistening water and could almost imagine the feel of a stone baked by the sun. She was naturally alert and very beautiful.
Colette, the protagonist, endures many hardships and tragedies as a young woman, which eventually leads her to a life helping the poor, before and during World War I, in one of the fastest changing cities.
Although Colette is the titular character, the story is not only about her. It also covers the people who surround her, including her parents Effie and Moon, her eventual lover Morgan Wright, Morgan’s cousin Anna, Anna’s lover Beacon, and Colette’s roommate Lisele. The reader gets to see the backstory and motivations of each of these main characters, in sections that jump back and forth between 1892 and 1918 and in cities ranging from Hawtorne, IL to Grey Hawk, KY to New York City, and more.
The way the story is structured makes it read almost more like a collection of short stories than a novella. Many sections seem to focus on different characters’ pasts, which are often alluded to in previous sections. And, as I said earlier, the story is not entirely about Colette, but rather about the people she lives among and who influence her in her childhood and young adulthood.
My one critique is that this story could be fleshed out more. There is so much going on that it feels it could easily stretch out into a full length novel, and it would nice to see more of what happens to the characters as they grow older and the world around them changes even more.
I’d be especially interested in learning more about Colette as she deals with, to quote the book’s description, the thing she inherits “that will endure the generations.” Colette’s life is never too deeply rooted in any particular place, which goes well with her free spirit and deep curiosity. This helps her adapt to anything life throws her way, and though she goes through more than her fair share of suffering, she always willingly accepts what is in store for her and finds a way to embrace change.
Overall, Seeing Colette is about change. In addition to physical changes, such as moving to new cities, the characters live during a time of great civil and political change. War changes the way people view the world, and the part of the story set in the early 1900s depicts the way people view each other socially. Some of the characters are white, while others are not. This means not everyone sees everyone as equal, yet, but there are some characters who see past skin color and allow themselves to fall in love.
If you’re looking for a relatively quick, but sensory read, with rich characters who live in a time of great upheaval, then I recommend getting Seeing Colette.
Genre: Historical fiction
Published: April 16, 2014, 162 pages