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Liana by Martha Gellhorn
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Liana (1944)

by Martha Gellhorn

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Marc Royer is a prosperous middle-aged businessman on the French Caribbean island of Saint Boniface. He has never married, preferring to visit his long-time mistress, Marie, whenever the mood strikes. One day he meets Liana, a beautiful young black woman, and decides he must have her. He strikes a deal with her mother to marry Liana. Liana naively imagines her new life as a “white wife,” but quickly learns her status makes her an outsider in both the white and black communities. To fill Liana’s days, Marc arranges for Pierre, a young teacher recently arrived from France, to tutor her. Pierre offers Liana respect she does not receive from Marc, and their relationship predictably becomes romantic. Marc spends his time oscillating between jealousy and denial, but is so focused on building his business empire that the couple gets way away with quite a lot right under Marc’s nose. However, as the island finally wakes up to World War II being waged miles away, Pierre is conflicted, feeling he should return to France to fight for his country. Both Marc and Pierre have good intentions to take care of Liana while furthering their goals, but ultimately they exercise the inherent power of their race and class, and Liana pays the price. It’s a sad story, well told, with lessons that transcend the setting and time period. ( )
  lauralkeet | Mar 19, 2019 |
I was most pleasantly surprised by this novel. A moving story of a young mulatto girl taken as a mistress, and then married by a wealthy white man on a French Caribbean island cut off from the rest of the world by World War II. It's really the classic Pygmalion tale in an exotic setting, very well told. Despite the cluelessness of the men who decide Liana's fate without consulting her wishes, their characters are not entirely unsympathetic. Sometimes, they ALMOST get the notion that their creation has feelings, although what to do about that is beyond their comprehension.

A quote: "Two men came in one day with a five hundred pound mako. It was amazing that two men in a skiff, using a handline, could have fought and killed that monster...He loved to fish too; he knew that beautiful harsh wonder of a man in a small boat alone on the sea." This book was written while Gellhorn was married to Hemingway, but about 10 years before the publication of The Old Man and the Sea. ( )
2 vote laytonwoman3rd | Apr 15, 2009 |
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FOR
EDNA GELLHORN
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In the afternoon at five o'clock he took his wife for a drive.
My distinguished publishers believe that a novel of a certain age, like this one, requires a preface or an afterword by way of explanation. (Afterword)
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From the back cover: "It was a terrific year for talk. But through it all the talk would come back to Marc Royer and Liana. That subject never failed; it belonged to the island entirely. Everyone asked everyone else, during that whole year, why Marc Royer had married her"

The year is 1940. France has fallen to the Germans, but on the tiny French Caribbean island of Saint Boniface nothing absorbs the inhabitants more than the news of wealthy Marc Royer's marriage to the young mulatto, Liana. Marc himself is impervious to the scandal - Liana, after all, is "something he had bought for use when he could not have what he loved" - but for Liana the price of becoming a "white wife" is alienation both from her own people and from those whom, for a time, she tries to emulate. Only with Pierre, her teacher, does she feel herself free, but he is white, and a man, and in the end knows where his allegiances lie. Liana does not have that certainty and in this disturbing novel about the sadness and inhumanity of oppression, her plight speaks to us as powerfully today as when Liana was first published in 1944.
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