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The Reinvention of Love, by Helen Humphreys

Perhaps there was never a novelist so self-effacing as Helen Humphreys, a novelist so adverse to inhabiting the space between her characters and her readers. This accounts, in part, for the intimacy and sparkling clarity of her stories, which give the magical impression of unfurling all around us.

Humphreys is also an award-winning poet, and in her latest novel, a fictionalized chronicle of the love affair between Charles Sainte-Beuve and Adele Hugo, she applies this gift in the best way, entering us into her characters' sensual experience of the world: We occupy the protagonists' bodies as well as their minds. How apt, for The Reinvention of Love, is more than the romantic story of an illicit affair, it is also a clever, witty inquiry into the nature of love, reminiscent of the metaphysical poets.

The story is set amid the political turbulence and artistic fervour of 19th-century Paris. Charles Sainte-Beuve, an influential critic, earns the friendship of Victor Hugo after writing a review celebrating the writer's poems. He joins Hugo's literary circle, the Cenacle, which includes painter Delacroix, poet Lamartine and the boastful, profligate Alexandre Dumas. Charles becomes a fixture in the bustling Hugo household on Notre-Dame-des-Champs.

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Quite precipitously he falls in love with Victor's wife Adele and, happily, his feelings are returned. Charles and Adele stroll discreetly in the apple orchard of Jardin de Luxembourg. Charles dresses as a woman (Charlotte) so they can meet without suspicion in the church. Whenever possible, they register as man and wife at the Hotel Saint-Paul and climb the winding staircase to the top floor. Charles suffers from a form of hermaphroditism which means he cannot have normal sexual relations. But this only pleases Adele who, after four children, has no desire to become pregnant again.

Humphrey wryly and delicately exposes Charles as a man of mixed motives. He genuinely loves Adele, but at the same time she is his means of defeating Victor. He is bitterly jealous of Victor's exploding profile, of the charisma that is turning him into the city's literary darling. Conversations between Charles and Adele tend to begin with love and end with literature. Love and literature as duelling passions is one of the novel's main metaphysical conceits.

It is a testament to Humphrey's skill that Victor Hugo should emerge as a mountain of bombast and self-absorbed genius, and yet never overpower in our minds the unimposing figure of Charles. It is Charles's superbly realized voice that grips us throughout. It is not a loud voice. On the contrary, it is subdued and a little whiny. But he treats the reader like a confidante. Despite his exalted view of his own intelligence, he is amusingly self-deprecating about his flaws. He describes himself as ugly and unmanly and admits to a degree of malicious self-interest, and a too-large helping of ambition. Yet these qualities make him vulnerably, pathetically human. I could not help but like him.

Nevertheless, the combination of his ego and his mouth regularly land him in dangerous situations. He is forever insulting writers who then challenge him to duels. In these delightfully farcical episodes, Charles and his opponents avoid shooting and being shot. Charles fears Victor will demand a deadly contest when he admits the truth about his affair with Adele. But to his surprise, Victor suggests they put the situation behind them and begin their relationship anew. He doesn't mean it, of course. For the rest of her life, Adele will pay for her indiscretion with Charles, and for the rest of his, Charles will regret the loss of a lover and a friend.

After the affair, Charles devotes his days entirely to writing. His reputation as a critic soars with the popularity of his literary portraits. Occasionally, his friend the novelist George Sand drops by in her masculine attire to discuss her endless search for love. For a time, he enjoys a close friendship with Napoleon Bonaparte's niece. But mostly Charles writes and reminisces about Adele.

The atmosphere turns decidedly ghostly with the sudden appearance of Adele's adult daughter Dede, who has never recovered from the death of her older sister. Dede's unrequited love for a British soldier takes her to Halifax, Barbados and finally to an asylum in Paris. These final sections feel a little like a wing added onto a mansion; they give the overall work a baroque architecture. Oddly enough, it is in keeping with the increasingly eerie sensibility. I was sorry when the novel ended. It's always a privilege to spend time in Humphrey's imagination.

Donna Bailey Nurse is a Toronto writer and editor.

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