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'Yvette in America' by John Goulet
Experience ageless tale of an elderly woman's life
Sunday, December 10, 2000
By Maurice Kilwein Guevara
As in life, the characters you come across in fiction aren’t necessarily heroic or even always likable. Sometimes they can be manipulative and vain.
This is often the case with 80-something Yvette Plevin in “Yvette in America,” John Goulet’s splendid new novel. Nevertheless, by the time you turn the last page and the old French refugee is dying, confused, in a hospital bed in Milwaukee, you can’t help but love her and have your heart broken as if she were your own mother.
As the novel opens, we learn that Yvette has fallen and is being treated for “a stroke, and not of luck.” Doctors, nurses, and her gloomy middle-aged son, George, hover about her bed as the old woman tries to bring order to a blurry reality. Memory has been Yvette’s compass for nine decades, but now even that familiar certainty is failing her.
Goulet has shaped the narrative structure of the novel to serve the theme of memory. The book consists of seven chapters. Each one begins with a vignette in the novel’s present time (Yvette in the hospital). But every vignette also slips us into a distant past (Yvette as a child) -- a past that has been morphed by the old woman’s debilitated condition.
After each vignette, in much longer stories, we watch Yvette grow up and old over the years.
We glimpse her upper middle-class girlhood on Ile de Sein, a small island off the coast of Brittany. As a young woman Yvette marries, has her first son, Raoul, lives briefly in colonial Indochina, and eventually divorces. Time moves forward. To escape the Nazis, Yvette and her son sail to America as refugees, and shortly thereafter she ships her son off to boarding school.
In America, as the title foretold, is where we watch Yvette play out the major dramas of her life. The novel is set in various locales: Massachusetts, Kentucky, Colorado, California and Iowa, until finally the old gal is “stuck in Milwaukee, Wisconsin of all places.”
In her first years in America, in Boston, she accidentally becomes pregnant in her affair with an awkward, tall pianist and composer of modest talent, Albert Pleven, an American of French descent. He proposes to her on New Year’s Day, 1941 (not a good year all around, it will turn out). Their unplanned son, George, is another accident of time and place. Eventually, even the patient Albert will have had enough of Yvette’s manipulations, her unfounded suspicions of his infidelity, her vanities (she wears a wardrobe of fancy bows to cover a bulging goiter). This marriage, too, will end in divorce, loneliness and another unwanted son.
But Yvette is not without redeeming qualities, although her actions often have thorny consequences.
In “Last Love,” the final and longest story in the novel, old Yvette is victimized in a supermarket and later must appear in court. There, in a brain succumbing to time, she misinterprets the polite kindness of the judge as a sign of romantic love. Afterward, she regularly goes to court to see her “beloved.”
At one point, she misunderstands a ruling against a young man named Joe (Petit Joe, she dubs him) and suffers from the delusion that Petit Joe is the victimized and abandoned love child of her and the judge.
Gerontologists say that our dominant personality characteristics become even more salient as we age. This seems to be the case with Yvette, who sees herself as a champion of the oppressed. Petit Joe comes to stand for her own sons (the discarded Raoul, the unplanned George), for the abused bully, for anyone who has been treated unfairly.
By the end of the novel, owing to a mixture of personality and dementia, Yvette’s grasp on reality slips away. And Goulet, a master of using ironic humor to reveal our fragile humanity, manages to show not only Yvette Pleven’s goiter and flaws but also her vulnerability and tenderness.
Maurice Kilwein Guevara is a poet and professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
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