I have tried to write this post at least a hundred times. I’ve tried to write about this subject to friends, with no success. Every time I get close, I can’t find a way in. I feel like I’m just going to start writing adjectives and adverbs with maybe a few nouns like: hurt cry yes amazing love sex France.
I am trying to write about a book. Destiny by Sally Beauman. But I can’t really just talk about the book. I have to talk about my whole life to convey the importance of this book to me.
I’m a little nervous. This is probably the most risky, personal thing I’ve ever written anywhere.
I read Destiny when I was fifteen years old. I even remember the day I bought it. It was a bookstore in the Sharpstown area; I was with my father. I was perusing the Fiction shelves and saw a blue cover with a red rose, and on the rose was a small diamond.
The back said:
Edward and Helene. When they met it was more than coincidence. When they fell in love it was more than passion. When they thought they’d lost it all, they should have known they were wrong–they should have known it was Destiny.
It sounds kind of cheesy, I suppose, and if I recall correctly, it sounded a little cheesy and over the top to me back then too. But I selected the book. One of the blurbs on the back of the book reads:
“For as long as it took me to read Destiny, it became the most important thing in my life. I was riveted.”–Dominick Dunne, author of the The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.
I think that is the best possible way to explain how I devoured this book: it was the most important thing in my life. It was over six hundred pages and I think I read it in two days. I remember staying in my room, not eating, not doing anything but reading and crying. I had a similar reaction the first time I read Gone With The Wind, so though I was rapt, I didn’t realize that my life was changing even as I read the words.
When I was finished, I was devastated. I wept for days. I also think by this time I was fairly obsessed with England, and England plays a big part of the book, so not only was I in love with the characters (which I will finally describe in a moment) but I was in love with the setting of the book.
I hate to admit this because it is so silly from an adult’s point of view. But it was part of the reason, when my father died, that I moved to London. I wanted to be a character in this novel. I wanted the possibility to live that kind of life. I brought the book with me to London. It returned home with me a year later. I would occasionally dip into it, open a random page and read a few paragraphs. But in toto it was still too much. It hurt to read those words. It felt safer to carry them around with me, and know they were beside me if I needed them.
I read it again when I was twenty. It seemed like an entirely different book, and yet it was even better than the first time I read it. Again, I was devastated. One would think that having known what happens, I would be prepared. I was not. I wept and wept and wept, and even as I write these words, I feel the beginnings of tears developing in the corner of my eyes.
I read the book over the next decade perhaps twenty-five times. I needed to keep reading because I wanted the ending to be different. I wanted to find a clue that there was some way… some…. way? It has traveled with me to: Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Seattle, Portland, Connecticut, Nantucket, Boulder. It has traveled with me everytime I’ve moved; other books have fallen away, but this one book, I can not let go. It is tattered. The spine is broken, the pages are yellowing. And it is still in my life. I still can’t give it up.
I can’t give up the dream that one can be in love like that.
Such a stupid thing to say. But never in my real life have I seen love like that. I do not believe in love at all; I find it a ridiculous convention, without any basis in reality. I know people date (a disgusting, vaguely embarrassing thing) and I know they get married and have babies and live in the suburbs. I don’t know what that is but my secret suspicion is that it’s a pale approximation of love. Love shouldn’t be casual. It should embarrass you to talk about because it’s the most sacred thing in the whole world.
I am a cynic: I think the millions of marriages we see every year are basically just people deciding they’d rather not be alone. And that is fine! Good for them. If they’re happy, I have nothing to say about it.
But it isn’t my notion of love, and I know that nobody can live up to my ideal of it, and because the ideal is more important to me than sacrificing my principles, I’ve given up on it.
Destiny begins with Edouard. He is the second son of a dynastic French family. His family has fled France for England during World War Two, and he is fifteen years old. His older brother, Jean-Paul, has set him up with a woman – a French prostitute named Celestine. For a year, he sees her, convinced that he is in love with her. On the night of his sixteenth birthday, his father is executed in France for working with the Resistance. He goes to find Jean-Paul and finds him not at the house of his fiancee, Isobel, but passed out in Celestine’s bed. Beauman writes the scene with such immediacy – it is headspinning. Celestine is sad; she has fallen in love with Edouard, but would never tell him that. She knows he is meant for someone great – she’s not appropriate at all. But through her eyes, we see this beautiful, sweet, silly young boy and we fall in love with him too.
Of course he does not go back to her but when her elderly sponsor dies, Edouard, via his attorney, sends the deed to the small house in her name, and a modest annuity.
Meanwhile, in Alabama… Helene is the daughter of a young British woman who dreams of going back to England. They live in a trailer park; her mother, Violet, works in a hair salon and doesn’t make much money. While she’s working, Helene is left alone for long periods of time. She befriends an older boy, Billy Tanner, who takes her swimming in a pond. She and Billy are both misfits. Helene, at the age of five, speaks with a British accent; her mother forces her to practice her table manners, and fills her head with stories about going home to England. They even have a little box where they keep money, dollar bills and coins, hoping to go to England. Billy and his family are considered the lowest of the low.
Even at this point in the book, you can feel something changing in Alabama. You know that Helene and Billy are going to get caught in the racial unrest of the late 1950s but you don’t quite know how.
After his father’s death, Edouard and Jean-Paul at first become very close. But it is short-lived. Edouard goes to Oxford, where Isobel makes a surprise visit. She and Jean-Paul broke off their engagement long ago, and she comes to seduce Edouard before she marries a race car driver.
Our young Edouard is already cutting a firebrand through the women of London and France. He has become known for giving women jewels after he ends an affair with them – but never diamonds. He remembers what Celestine said about holding something in reserve, both words and things. To keep something for the woman he wants to be his wife. He is not interested in a wife; women are little more than a trifle to him. He enjoys sex, but finds absolutely no need for any kind of relationship. He is not as close to his brother anymore because Edouard wants very much to restore his father’s jewelry/hotels/etc. empire to its former glory and Jean-Paul is very lazy and doesn’t care about it. So Edouard undertakes to restore it himself. He restores their mansion in St. Cloud, in the Loire, Paris, and their home in Eaton Square. He re-invigorates the all the businesses. Jean-Paul moves to Algiers, where the family have several olive plantations.
In Alabama, Helene is growing into a beautiful young woman. She is dirt poor and is fascinated by the town’s richest man – Ned Calvert. But mostly she worries about going to England with her mother. She and Billy don’t really swim any more, but they still talk. When one of her bitchy friends, Pricilla-Anne, tries to talk him down, she defends him.
One day, while riding in the Loire, Edouard sees a young boy, about six years old. A teenage girl pulls him away, but days later, he sees the boy again and talks to him. The boy’s name is Gregoire. Finally he goes to find the boy’s parents, and discovers they live in poverty on the grounds of his chateau. He is offended and orders the maintenance people to fix the homes at once. To make it worse, the young boy is Jean-Paul’s illegitimate child. Edouard is furious with his brother. But in general as he gets closer to Gregoire, he becomes much more gentle. He takes the boy to live with him in the chateau – which the mother wants – and Edouard spoils him. He buys him cars because he loves to take apart engines.
One afternoon he must go to the US for business. He is informed the boy is ill. By the time he returns home, the boy has died of meningitis. Like the disappointment when he discovered Jean-Paul with Celestine, this becomes a turning point for him. He becomes very stern. He is deeply sad and deeply unhappy.
Isobel comes to see him, and they marry. It is amazing here how Beauman captures both the happiness he shares with Isobel and his fundamental sadness. He is still a little moody occasionally, but he does love Isobel and she loves him. They’re generally very well matched. On a trip to Algiers to see Jean-Paul, Isobel and Jean-Paul are killed by a terrorist bomb.
At this point, Edouard is completely brutal. He is very rich, very handsome, has lots of sex, but no-one, except his close friend Christian, gets anywhere close to him.
In Alabama, Ned Calvert has invited Helene to have dinner at his big mansion while his wife is out of town. She goes, and Ned feels her breast. She doesn’t really know what to do about it. Meanwhile, Billy Tanner has a big plan for her birthday. He has saved up some money to take her and Pricilla-Anne and Pricilla-Anne’s jerk boyfriend out to dinner at Howard Johnson’s. The boyfriend is awful, ordering more food than he could possibly eat just because he knows Billy can barely afford it. Billy works at a gas station and he socializes with black people. He has committed the egregious sin of actually eating dinner at one of his co-worker’s homes. Pricilla-Anne’s boyfriend mentions this a few times.
Helene and Billy walk home and Billy has a truly lovely little monologue:
“It’s going to change,” he jerked out suddenly. “It’s going to change. Someday soon. He can’t see it. Most of them can’t see it. But it will.” He lifted his hand and let it fall. “He’s been to college. He probably reads more books in a week than I get through in a year, and he can’t see it. No more than my daddy can, and most of the folks round here. But it will change – it’s wrong, so it’s got to, that’s all. I didn’t always think that way. Not when I was a kid. And if I said what I thought now, my daddy’d smash me in the face. But I think it just the same. I look around here – and all I see is hate. All I ever see is hate. Hate and fear. Everybody scratching, scratching just to keep their little place on the heap, just to keep from slipping a little bit lower. I’m way down near the bottom, so I can see, I see what it does to people. My daddy now. My daddy hasn’t worked in thirteen years, and he drinks more liquor than is good for him, but you know what? My daddy thinks he’s okay. Because he knows, whatever happens, he’s a white man, so no matter what, he can’t go down to the bottom of the heap. That’s for colored folks. My daddy thinks he hates them, but he doesn’t, not really. He needs them, do you see? He needs them because they’re the only thing my daddy has left, the only think he can look down…” His voice died away, and he turned back and looked into her face.
“I wanted so much…” He frowned. “I wanted so much for you to have a good time tonight. I wanted and I planned and it got all messed up, and…”
“Oh Billy. Hold me. Just hold me tight…” Helene stepped forward blindly, and his arms came around her hard. She bent her head head against his chest and the hammer of his heart and she cried. It seemed to her she cried for a long time; cried for herself and her mother and Billy and his daddy; cried for Alabama, and for being fifteen years old; cried because the moon shone on, and the trees moved in the breeze. All the time she cried, Billy never said a word. He just held her steadily, and rested his face against her hair. When, he finally, she stopped, he lifted her face up gently to his and looked into her eyes.
“I wish you were for me,” he said, his voice very gentle and very sad. “I wish I could you would be – ever. I’ve wished for it and even prayed for it, for just as long as I can remember. And tonight – I’d planned on telling you. How I felt. I thought .. I hoped. But I was kidding myself all along. I knew it all the time, maybe. He frowned and his kingfisher blue eyes were like stars. “I wished I could see into the future sometimes. See what’s going to happen to you. Because I don’t know where you’re going, but it’s going to be a long way from here. That I know. And I’d like for you to be safe and happy, where-ever it is. I’d like to think you’d remember. Remember me. The things we did…”
“I care for you.” He took her hand and held it, just for a moment. “Ever since you first came here. Ever since you were a little kid. You’re beautiful. And you’re special. There is no one else like you. When I look at you, it’s the sun and moon were shining up there in the same sky. That’s all. I just wanted you to know. It won’t change nothing. I don’t expect you to feel the same way. But I wanted you to know.”
Helene bent her head. She felt the tears start up behind her eyes.”
That’s some beautiful writing. Beauman, born in Devon, lived in the Southern USA for a while, and you can tell the experience really informed her writing. She got so much right. But mostly, the despair. Helene’s mother was always delusional, but she begins to disintegrate, and Beauman captures it perfectly.
Then several things happen very quickly. The first is, there’s a riot. The second is, Helene begins to see Ned Calvert. She never has sex with him, but she allows him to touch her breasts. The third is that her mother becomes pregnant by Ned Calvert and needs an (illegal) abortion. They need sixty dollars. So Helene asks Ned for it. Ned tells her to “be nice” to him for the money. Because she needs the money, she allows him to put his penis between her breasts and climax. She’s extremely cold – she’s no longer in her body. After it’s over she asks for the money and he says, “I’ve seen more tact in a New Orleans cathouse.” Then he only gives her fifty-five, with five on account, for the next time she’s “nice” to him. With the money in hand, her mother takes a bus to Montgomery to get the abortion.
While her mother is in Montgomery, Helene sees Billy walking down the street. She runs over to him. He has just been to the police station to give some testimony about what he saw during the riot. Ned Calvert, with several other men, drive by very slowly. Billy’s boss is in the car. He says, “You just lost yourself a job, boy.”
The tension is very high. Helene persuades him to go to the pond with her, to swim like they used to when they were kids. They undress and swim, then Helene climbs to the bank of the river. There, she wants him to be the first – to give him one pure thing in the world.
Helene looked up at him. His face looked gentle, and his eyes immeasurably sad. Slowly she lifted her arms and wound them around his neck, her breasts brushing his bare chest. She pressed her lips to his cheek, then softly against his mouth. Then she drew back.
“I know I’m right. I know I was never more right in my whole life.” Her blue eyes blazed up at him. “I know I could make you, Billy…”
“I know it too,” Billy smiled. “I understand. There’s no need for that.”
Gently he put his arms around her, then drew her down onto the ground beside him. He looked into her eyes then, as if there were something he wanted her to understand, something he couldn’t say.
“First and last.” He frowned slightly. “You were always that, Helene. Where I begin and where I end. That’s all. Tell me you know that.”
“I know.” Her voice broke.
“That’s all right then,” Billy said.
As he bent his head and kissed her lips, se heard a bird stir among the branches.
When they lay beside the pool, Billy had three hours left to live.
After Billy and Helene depart, she heard the shot ring out. She runs to him and sees he’s on the ground, dead.
Hours later, Cassie Wyatt, her mother’s boss, comes to tell her that her mother is back and she needs her. Helene rushes to her side. She’s very ill, and she’s in a convent – they knew she’d had an abortion and they took her in anyway. Her mother dies that night too. Cassie, out of kindness, gives Helene five hundred dollars and tells her to go home, go to England.
In Paris, Edouard has sworn off women after a night with a prostitute. It’s been three weeks and he knows he will go find another woman tonight. He doesn’t want “the” one; he doesn’t believe she exists. Just someone. That evening, he sees her standing outside a church. Helene has been to England – to her mother’s sister’s house in Devon – but her aunt doesn’t want her there. So she has come to Paris.
It is love at first sight. But Helene begins with a lie: her name. She doesn’t want Edouard to know her. She only wants him to know the woman she intends to become. She tells him she’s Helen Hartland, and she’s eighteen years old, from Devon, England. After dinner, he takes her to her rooming house. He is eager to see her again. He’s never felt this way, not even with Isobel. This is a funny and wry scene as he’s waiting:
Edouard climbed back into the Aston-Martin, drove at high speed back to St. Cloud, and there attempted to drown her memory in a bottle of Armagnac, and a night without sleep.
In the morning he sent to Hermes and bought the pair of gray kid gloves. Around the finger of one of them, he slipped a solitaire diamond ring. The diamond was a fifteen-carat stone, graded “D,” the highest classification for purity and color, and “IF,” internally flawless, for clarity. It had been cut by a master; it burned with a blue-white fire; it was the perfect marriage between nature and art.
He put the gloves and ring back in their box and closed the lid. Then he waited, in feverish anxiety, for six o’clock to come.
The next night, he arrives at the cafe where she works. She doesn’t seem surprised to see him. They go to dinner, then he takes her to his house in St. Cloud. After that, they are inseparable. She moves in with him. He has no qualms about showing her off, though it would be scandalous, but Helene knows she’s got a secret. Then, she realizes she has another secret. She’s pregnant.
She assumes it is Billy’s. Because she thinks Edouard won’t love her any more if she tells him about the baby, or the fact she’s lied about her name and where she’s from, she leaves in the middle of the night.
Edouard is obsessed. He doesn’t understand at all. Meanwhile, Helene is in Rome, with some indie film makers. She marries one of them – Lewis Sinclair – because the baby needs a father. She doesn’t respect Lewis, and thus it is easier to lie to him. The next five years are spent with Helene and Edouard obsessing about each other, making discreet inquiries about each other, and basically feeling that the other had moved on. One very affecting scene is when they miss each other by literal seconds when they return to the place where they met. Also, Edouard knows it is his baby. So every year, he sets aside some beautiful piece of jewelry for her (the girl is named Cat), certain that one day he’ll be able to be with her. Helene becomes a huge movie star.
She also returns to her small town in Alabama, and gets her revenge on Ned Calvert. Without him knowing, she had bought his bank loan and because he couldn’t pay, she was foreclosing on that big, pretty plantation. It’s a very satisfying scene.
Finally, five years after sneaking out of the house like a thief in the night, Helene realizes that Cat is Edouard’s baby. She writes him a letter. One afternoon, she ends her involvement with the weirdo indie film guys and comes home to a quiet house. She remembers that Cat is with the nanny, and she thinks they must leave this house – too many bad memories. She opens the living room door and:
Across the room, directly facing her, a man was sitting in a chair. He must have heard her footsteps because his attitude was listening and intent. Helene stopped. Across the room, Edouard rose silently to his feet.
They both stood still, looking at each other. The shock was so acute that Helene could not have moved, or spoken. She stared at him and the silence seemed to her clamorous, full of energy. Edouard lifted his hand and let it fall.
And of course they have a happily ever after.
Except. It’s not “ever” after. It’s seven years. They immediately return to France with Cat, and Cassie Wyatt who is now working as a nanny for Helene. They marry. They have two more children, both boys. And Edouard buys his friend Christian’s house to give Helene a real English garden – the one her mother always promised her.
Then when things are beautiful and good and your heart is soaring with joy… Sally Beauman once said she did not like happy endings. Oh no, she does not. She does not.
While Helene is in the Loire with the children, Edouard must go into Paris for some business with his attorney. He finds an old box, and in the old box is an agreement between his brother Jean-Paul and another man, and a young woman that Edouard vaguely recognizes. Jean-Paul got her pregnant and paid the man to marry her. And the child is Helene. She’s his niece.
Most people at this point squee with horror. I know I did. But I also didn’t because the book – it’s 838 pages long – explains this love as completely unique, and no matter what else, I desperately wanted them to be together. Each of those 838 pages made it perfectly clear that only they could make each other happy.
But of course, Edouard can not live with this knowledge. He burns all of the documents. Then, in his beloved Aston-Martin, he intentionally drives into an embankment and kills himself.
Oh lord, the pain of these next pages is just overwhelming; so overwhelming, in fact, I can’t even bear to write out specifically the details. The book ends as their young daughter Cat knows that she wants to design jewelry for her father’s company.
She doesn’t like happy endings, so she completely ravages you. For days, I spontaneously burst into tears when I read this. It has a power over me, a lifelong power. This and Gone With The Wind are the only two books that do.
When I die, I want to be buried with this book. This copy – the tattered, broken, yellowed copy – means more to me than any other explanation of love. It is the definition. Even if it isn’t literal, it conveys the love, joy and heartbreak. I stumbled onto it when I was a teenager. I am lucky to have known both Edouard and Helene for as long as I have.