The 2×2 series pairs literature, usually by men and women, sometimes from different parts of the world, so that each lights up the other, allowing us to learn from difference.
Rites of Compassion pairs a novella by Willa Cather (Old Mrs. Harris) with one by Gustave Flaubert (A Simple Heart). I’m going to review each novella separately, and then talk about the collection as a whole.
Old Mrs. Harris by Willa Cather
Old Mrs. Harris is about a family that has moved from their comfortable, semi-wealthy situation in Tennessee to start a new life in Colorado. They leave behind a system of support and the culture they’re all familiar with. In their new area, the culture is completely different, and people view the family negatively.
The family consists of three generations, with Mrs. Harris the grandmother, her daughter Victoria and her husband, and their multiple children. Mrs. Harris, once she had grandchildren, retreated to the role of housekeeper and cook, the person behind the scenes who takes care of everyone as her children struggle with being parents and the young children live their life innocently. The story is multifaceted, exploring conflict of culture and age.
The people around Mrs. Harris’s family think she’s being taken advantage of. They believe that as we grow old, it’s the obligation of the younger generation to take care of the older. Mrs. Harris is extremely uncomfortable with such ideas and wishes people would understand her point of view – that she gratefully and happily slipped into this role, a role she always expected and which, back in Tennessee, allowed her a great deal of freedom and respect and friendship.
Apparently the novella is meant to be semi-autobiographical, with the grandchild Vickie as Willa Cather’s character. Honestly, the story felt a bit too short to me, too much of an outline for a longer work. There were a great deal of interesting things that were brought up and just left out, unresolved. This is not one of Cather’s better known works, and I can see why. It really does feel half-worked, an interesting look at the way she might have begun the process of telling a story, rather than a full story itself.
A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert
This novella was much shorter, almost a long short story rather than a novella. It follows a family servant named Félicité over half a century as she comes to work for this particular family and, one by one, loses all the things important to her life: her lover, the boy, the girl, her nephew, her mistress, and her parrot. Not all those losses are deaths, of course, but one by one, Félicité is abandoned and left alone until she dies alone in her old age. This isn’t meant to be a spoiler; you know from the beginning that this is an examination of Félicité’s whole life. It’s the journey that’s important to this story.
Honestly, I have very little to say about A Simple Heart. I’m not a fan of Flaubert – I hated Madame Bovary – but I was hoping that perhaps it was just the book and that maybe I’d like this one better. I didn’t. The entire thing was a dump of telling, no showing, and it felt like nothing more than a rough outline for a story with a few melodramatic bits thrown in. It was extremely boring and I felt no connection to the characters at all. I didn’t learn anything from it, so I’m just going to leave it at that.
The collection as a whole:
While I think it’s very interesting to pair books together in this way, my lack of interest in the Flaubert story really prevented me from profiting from the experience. I started to read the introduction by Mary Gordon, but I didn’t want her ideas to influence my own before I wrote up this review, so I quit only a few paragraphs in. I do plan to go back and read it now.
I wish I had something more interesting to say about the two novellas together. I can definitely see why they were chosen – both about characters who occupied similar roles in their families/groups, both people who aged until their deaths – but with nothing gained from of Flaubert, I can’t really compare and contrast the two. I would love to read other pairings in this series, though. It’s a fascinating idea and I love that these books – from different genders, countries, languages, and time periods – can act as a sort of mirror to each other.