The Secret of
(Wisconsin)One definition of good luck would be that you get lifted out of a Belgian orphanage in 1940 just before the war started --- and shipped off to Long Island to live with a foster family. The definition of bad luck is that your adoptive family is violent, drunk, abusive, penny-pinching, self-destructive, and likes calling you "stupid" and "frog" and "stupid frog."Thus Ms. Inez' luck.These are her new late 1940s style parents, "Ruthie and Ray waltzed into the living [room] with freshly topped highballs and settled on the sofa, she in a soft blouse and pleated skirt, he in one of his many three-piece tailored suits accented with a monogrammed pocket handkerchief."
"We chose you from all the others," Ruthie insisted. What others I wondered, had she been shopping for a child?Foster mother #1 doesn't stay around long; she's replaced by a spitfire by the name of Dee:
She waited daily for Ray's homecoming, a restless presence in skintight pedal pushers, silk shirt, long strands of gold chains, chunky bracelets, and occasional hats with turned-down brims. Dee chose to wear pants as if she were the man of the house. During our eleven-year relationship, she donned a dress but once, when appearing at my 1944 grade school graduation, as soused as Ray.
As Colette matures, her relationship with her parents turns dangerous. Step-mother Dee is sure that she is stealing from her, beats her when she tracks her into her room (face-powder sprinkled on the floor).
Ray starts fondling her, paying her a dollar or two each time. Since it is the only way she can get money, the girl has little choice. Meanwhile, she is showered with insults from the two of them: Ray ("You're the fucking bastard of a priest and a nun"); Dee ("Your own mother didn't want you.")
Not surprisingly, Colette becomes a compulsive nail-biter and always sleeps on the ready for attack (she is convinced that the older woman wants to kill her --- she learns to hide her bruises from the world). At the same time, she turns into an excellent student and an omnivorous reader.
One day Dee empties out her closet, burns all her letters and books, and says, "I want you out."
She leapt at me, punched me in the stomach and face. I bit down on her fingers, jabbed her in whatever soft places my knuckles found.
We struggled, staggered to the kitchen and fell in a squirming heap. I hammered her head against the floor until she rolled over me with pummeling fists, her puffed face and red-streaked protruding eyes as surreal as those of an extraterrestrial.
"This was my final vision of her: the jellylike glisten of damp skin, the shiny pink pores of her nose, the bristling black hairs in her nostrils, the thin ridged streaks of pointed lips. Nana [the grandmother] limped toward us, lashing our legs and back with a cane until we rolled apart in exhaustion."
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Up to this point, some two-thirds of the way through the book, Inez has done a fine job keeping the reader's interest; hell, it's impossible not to be riveted. We have grown fond of Colette, especially her ability to survive in such debilitating surroundings. But, woe --- it is at this part, when things start to look up for her, that the book turns droopy, maudlin, even tiresome. Names are dropped needlessly (she lives in Manhattan in "an apartment vacated by Marlon Brando;" she meets W. H. Auden at the offices of IT Magazine where she works).
The Secret of M. Dulong devolves into a long search for her real mother, at last found in England. Marthe is someone who does not want to be found, does not welcome this intrusion from her past, discourages her daughter at every turn, so much so that we find ourselves wanting Inez to just give up, let it be, live her own life.
Colette Inez knows how to curl the neck hairs when recounting the ghastlies of growing up an orphan who was unwanted and unloved. But once she starts to write about coming into herself, the passion goes out of her words. The poet --- Inez is a published, somewhat well-known poet --- would have been well-served by a sharp-eyed, picky, no nonsense editor.--- Lolita Lark