At first we hear the voice of the young man Philippe, who becomes enamored of a very young, very pretty girl in a white dress. She may believe she loves him back, and marries him, but until she meets the dashing intellectual François, depth of feeling is something she’s never really known. Philippe’s obsessive feelings for Odile turn to jealousy when he discovers the turn in her affection, and it tears him apart.
Isabelle writes the second half of the book, and Maurois outdoes himself in writing in the voice of a woman in love. The love of Isabelle for Philippe parallels that of Philippe for Odile, and we see how the unrequited love of another changes us. When he is the one most loved, Philippe takes on the very same coquettishness and sly diversion that Odile had displayed. But Isabelle, from her position of feminine helplessness in French society circa 1920’s, becomes the stronger for her position of weakness. Her love is stronger, longer, more all-encompassing, and more forgiving.
Sarah Bakewell, author of How to Live or The Life of Montaigne and cataloger of rare books at the National Trust in London, wrote a piece on Maurois for The New Yorker magazine in 2012, just before this book was republished. In that piece she first quotes Maurois' Phillippe who could not feel at home with Odile's family: "'I seemed solemn, boring, and even though I loathed my own silences, I withdrew into them.' It was 'not my sort of climate,' he felt." Bakewell goes on to explain
This is why the novel is called “Climates”: in its examination of love, it also becomes an examination of the atmospheres we need to be fully ourselves. Philippe’s complaint about Odile’s family goes to the heart of the book. One can not just transfer one’s personality intact from one environment to the next. Relationships have different qualities of air, different barometric pressures. With Odile, Philippe is first expanded and enchanted, then he contracts and distorts into a jealous monster. With Isabelle, despite himself, he is himself.
Rush out and buy this new translation by Adriana Hunter of a 1928 masterpiece reprinted by Other Press. You will read it in a day, obsessively, for nearly every line has some truth that we recognize, and that makes us ache. It is nearly Valentine’s Day, and one wants to revisit those true things and share them, even if with a man long dead. His writing is polished and spare: he does not write too many words, but enough to tell us that he knows what man is, and how he loves, even against his better judgment.
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