Book Review

Femme au miroir by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

This post is written by my friend Ken Mckellar who is a frequent contributor to my blog. For new subscribers, my first language is not English. It is French hence the name of my blog. It is a reminder to myself about how writing and reading helped me sharpen my English without forgetting my French.

Thank you Ken for reviewing a French book for the first time on this blog knowing that French is not your first language. Kudos!

if you wish to explore modern French literature, buy the book here.

I used to be fluent in French but lack of practice over the years has made me rusty. So, deciding that it was time for a new challenge, I asked my friend Joanna (whose mother tongue is French) if she could recommend a good book in French for me to review, to get me back into shape linguistically.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she recommended La Femme au Miroir (Woman at the Mirror) by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. Although the book’s title has already been translated into English as Three Women in a Mirror, I wanted to read it in French to experience the richness of the original language.

With the help of a dictionary beside me, I can tell you that I was richly rewarded. Unfortunately, the English title not only gives the game away (the book is actually about three women) but also misses the subtlety of the reference to “Woman” in the singular, referring not only to the female gender, but also to what I subsequently learned was loneliness of a woman in each story.  

So who are the three women? Anne, Hanna and Anny (note the similarity of their names) each live in different centuries, each feeling suffocated by the conformity expected of them by the societies in which they live.

Anne lives in the sixteenth century in what is present-day Belgium. Running away into the forest to escape a wedding of convenience, she becomes a mystic who talks with animals and finds God in nature. As you can imagine, this type of behavior does not play well with the strong religious orthodoxy of counter-Reformation Europe.     

Hanna lives in early twentieth-century Vienna when it was still the grand capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although she has married well, into the aristocracy, with all the freedoms that wealth brought she is also increasingly dissatisfied with the tedious and stifling conventions around her. She decides to escape them in a journey of self-discovery.

Anny is a Hollywood actress living in present day LA. Addicted to and cursed by a  celebrity lifestyle with all of its excesses, she is looking for a deeper satisfaction and sense of purpose than her world can give her.

To reveal any more about the way their lives unfold and intersect would be to spoil the plot of an excellent book which races a long at a terrific space. This is without losing the lavish detail with which Schmitt describes the powerful emotions of his women reacting to the world around them. His technique of jumping from one story to another in each successive chapter creates real momentum but also binds the stories together.

Much has been made, in other reviews you may read, about the similarities between the stories and environments surrounding the three women, despite the different centuries in which they live.

For me, this book has much broader meaning. Each story (and the book itself) is a heart-wrenching account of frustration and loneliness; of how the fresh and vibrant energies of three self-aware souls can be sapped by the dull weight of received wisdom and social conformity; and of the different steps (and missteps) which these souls take to try to find happiness, fulfillment and purpose.

This is a story about three women written by a man who has the perception and sensitivity to get right inside their heads – he does this so well that I was both exhausted and elated when I finished the book. Great choice, Joanna!

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