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January 22, 2010

Libby Schmais on Romance... à la Française

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Libby Schmais's first novel for young adults, THE PILLOW BOOK OF LOTUS LOWENSTEIN, follows a teenage francophile and her humorous, less-than-successful attempts to live and love in the footsteps of some famous Parisian existentialists. Today, Libby joins us with ruminations on the value of romance, and shares some back story on the legendary French couple idolized by her 16-year-old heroine.


With Valentine’s Day looming on the horizon, my thoughts turn to romance and of course, chocolat (hint, hint). In my novel, THE PILLOW BOOK OF LOTUS LOWENSTEIN, the main character, Lotus, is obsessed with French food and the romance between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two famous Parisian existentialists. JP (as Lotus likes to call him) and Simone had an open relationship, which worked for them (although to be honest, I’m not sure how happy Simone was about it), but when Lotus tries to replicate it with her love interest Sean, it doesn’t turn out too well.

Maybe writing about Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir seems an odd choice for a book about teens, but what I like about JP and Simone is that they are so not the poster couple for a healthy relationship, but at the same time they had a great romance.

What was so romantic about this famous couple? Well, for Lotus (and moi), much of the romance stems in imagining how they lived, seeing the two of them sitting around in Café des Deux Magots in Paris, their favorite hangout, writing, mercilessly editing each other’s books, drinking endless espressos and having long discussions about philosophy, love, politics and all the ideas of the day.

The romance was also in how they seemed so free, so willing to sacrifice "normal life" for their life of ideas. The couple is even buried in the same grave, at the famous Cimitière de Montparnasse (which I plan to visit on my next trip to Paris).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we should emulate this dysfunctional relationship. Back in Brooklyn, when Sean and Lotus attempt to follow the freethinking ideas of these two famous existentialists, it doesn’t translate all that well to their real life. Lotus almost loses her best friend, finds out that Sean was not all that she thought he was, and realizes that she doesn’t like to share --- especially when it comes to l‘amour.

And yet, there’s still a great value to romance, and it’s something that we lose in the day-to-day, quotidien-ness of our lives and relationships. It’s something that takes us out of ourselves and makes us long for a bigger, more dramatic life. It’s funny --- I doubt whether Simone de Beauvoir, who saw herself as a serious intellectual, not to mention an early feminist, would have been comfortable being seen as a romantic heroine. Here’s a quote of hers on love and romance: “Love is when you take away the feeling, the passion, the romance and you find out you still care for that person.”

Now that is deeply romantic!


-- Libby Schmais