With its clever structure and highly personal content, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti captures the struggle of one woman to forgive herself for imagined transgressions in her past. Protagonist Lily recalls a continuing series of sensual encounters, some of which cause her guilt, and from which we are never very far. In fact, I recognize these as the best descriptions of a woman’s sensuality I have ever encountered. Author Annie Vanderbilt guides our tour very effectively, and I will always honor her for that. After a promising start, however, Madame Olivetti unfortunately bogs down from the weight of guilt, delusion, and the life lessons that come too late for the most deserving characters.
Through a series of highly effective erotic scenes, which are not explicit but just very well done, we understand a central feature of Lily’s nature. She bestows her men with love and shares her sensuality generously with them – and most of these episodes occur with her husband Paul as they try to build a family. Lily occupies Paul’s ancestral home in the south of France for a month each summer, and the summer after he dies suddenly of a heart attack, she sets herself the task of putting her guilt-ridden thoughts down on paper, using an aged manual Olivetti typewriter. Her local friends help her see that her guilt stems from a delusion: she thinks she conceived her daughter while having an affair in Mexico (some of the best, dreamiest sensual writing in the book), but an old photograph and a matriarch’s memory help her see the error of her ways.
Ms. Vanderbilt constructs a clever framework in which she allows Lily to tell her story, and interposes a current-events narrative in which her widowed heroine does the writing (while finding yet another partner for rewarding sex). The author slowly reveals Lily’s fraught emotional state to us, but then we find out it’s all a mistake, based on a series of graphically-told emotional losses and doubts. This book’s main reward lies in the effectiveness and clarity of Lily’s internal dialogue. It is constructed on a mistaken and damaging guilt in the main character that I had a hard time crediting, although the author gives it a very game try.