The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”I wanted to get it all down on paper; a record of what happened----just in case something did happen to me---- and to try and convince myself that I was not living in a state of permanent delusion. But why should you accept this story as given? It’s just a story----my story. And like all stories, it isn’t, in the pure sense of the word, true. It’s just my version of the truth. Which means it is----and isn’t----true at all.”
Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas, two actors I enjoyed watching interact in the movie.
This all started, as do many things, with just a happenstance. I was home over lunch and was just skimming through the channels for something to watch while I munched down on the salad I’d so industriously chopped, when Kristin Scott Thomas filled the screen of the TV. She had just opened her door to let Ethan Hawke walk into her apartment and he was trying to kiss her. She leaned her face away from him, but we hear her unzip his trousers. We can only see their faces as she proceeds to give him a helping hand. (view spoiler)[(The demise of the handjob has obviously been greatly exaggerated.) (hide spoiler)]. She never lets him touch her until he...uhh...well you know. I watched about twenty minutes of the movie before I had to return to work. I caught other slices of the movie at different times as it was rotating on HBO, SHOWTIME, or STARZ so I was starting to piece together the plot.
Instead of watching the movie as it was intended to be watched, from start to finish, I decided to read the book first.
Ok, so I knew the twist of the plot from my almost sacrilegious piece meal viewing of the movie. My apologies to the director. He deserved better from me, but if I hadn’t used a part of his movie as a mere diversion, as I masticated my salad, who knows when I would have finally gotten around to reading Douglas Kennedy.
Harry Ricks is a college professor at a small university in Ohio. He teaches film studies and what makes a teacher really good is when they are absolutely crazy about what they teach. He loves films and he uses that love to connect with his students. He soon achieves tenure just as his wife’s career starts to circle the drain. She is not happy with herself and she is certainly not happy with her husband.
Harry has jumped through all the hoops. He got married, had a kid, and had landed a reasonably high paying job. Just as he is reaching the reward part of his life, everything starts to unravel. We all contribute to our own demise and Harry is no exception.
He may have pulled the trigger, but others wired up the bomb.
In the aftermath, Harry finds himself the subject of a media witch hunt and the recipient of the full, scathing, condemnation of his colleagues. What hurts most of all is his own daughter telling him she doesn’t want to ever see him again. It isn’t a difficult decision to leave the smoldering, crumbling remains of his life behind and catch a plane to Paris.
Harry falls into a Yves Klein blue painting seeing the layers beyond blue paint.
A lifelong dream, reached under the wrong circumstances. He does not take enough money with him and soon he is on the verge of destitution. He is truly Down and Out in Paris. He is living in the part of town where only the most recent, most desperate immigrants live. He doesn’t have a work permit so his only avenue for sustaining himself is to take a night job watching a warehouse. It would allow him all the time in the world to work on his novel.
Five hundred words a day.
He knows he is working for criminals, but can justify it to himself by remaining ignorant about what actually goes on in the warehouse. Who are these people he buzzes into the building late at night? He puzzles on it, but does not let curiosity kill the cat.
Oh, and his neighbor Omar, the man who can’t go to the bathroom without leaving essence of Omar on every surface, is blackmailing him over…”And her smoky, raki-coated mouth tasted...well, smoky and raki-coated.”
**Sigh**, it is always hard to distinguish properly between what are self-destructive decisions and what are opportunities for illicit pleasure.
And then he meets Margit. ”The moonlight brought her into focus. She was a woman who had some years ago traversed that threshold marked middle age, but was still bien conservee. Of medium height with thick chestnut-brown hair that was well-cut and just touched her shoulders. She was slender to her waist, with just a hint of heft around her thighs. As the light crossed her face, I could see a long-healed scar across her throat.”
She lives in the Fifth arrondissement. She is strikingly handsome rather than beautiful with a sexuality that burns a man down to the essentials. She challenges the moral, uniquely American, complexities of his guilt. She provides a lifeboat in what is quickly becoming a cesspool of grasping hands trying to pull him under.
With this muse, this intellectually challenging muse, he begins to write a thousand words a day. He starts to feel like a man again. His creativity blossoms.
She limits how often he can see her. As each day passes between meetings, his anticipation becomes a thinner wire vibrating at a higher and higher frequency. The only way to release this tension is to touch her, to hear her voice, to for a few hours possess her.
People who threaten Harry, and there are way, way too many of those, start to have...well...unusual mishaps.
The movie Contempt starring the always lovely Brigitte Bardot and the always menacing Jack Palance was one of the movies that Harry went to see in Paris.
This is my first Douglas Kennedy, but it will most certainly not be my last. One of the interesting differences between the film and the book is that the movie does not convey the humor that is prevalent throughout the book. I actually snorted a few times while reading the book which happens whenever I’m surprised by unexpected humor. Kennedy also does a wonderful job of exploring and sharing Paris with us. He has written a few travel books and the talent for describing a place in a tantalizing fashion was most assuredly on display. Harry might be down and out, but the beauty of Paris certainly lessened each new catastrophe.
This book basically hit on all cylinders for me. I identified with the character and his circumstances. I’ve never had my career actually become a house burning to the foundation situation, but I’ve had some brushes with potential disaster. He makes bad decisions, but so do most people. Harry is simply colossally unlucky. His unwise decisions have the worst possible outcomes. He loves French films, an endearing trait, and spends every moment possible escaping from his life to the flickering screen of a movie theater. If I had been a tad more unlucky I could have found myself in Paris watching French cinema, rubbing shoulders with Turkish gangsters, and making love with a sexually explosive, alluring, Hungarian intellectual.
Wait...did I say unlucky?
Well, you’ll have to read the book to see just how unfortunate a windfall such as that can be. The twist is marvelous.
View all my reviews