The Shape I Gave You

March 13, 2007|
The Shape I Gave You by Martha Baillie
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Ulrike Hugenot is a young pianist who arrives home to her Berlin apartment and discovers a fat envelope stuffed into her mailbox. She is astonished when she realizes that it is from her late father Gustave’s Canadian lover.

“I am writing to you because my daughter has died,” writes Beatrice Mann. “But this explains nothing.” In the eighty pages of her letter that follow, Beatrice details her decades-long love affair with Gustave Hugenot. Grief, passion, fury, regret, fear, longing – Beatrice meticulously charts these emotions through the course of her life as she unburdens herself to the young woman she has only glimpsed a few times, many years ago. Why does she choose Ulrike as her confessor? And why now, seven years after Gustave’s death?

Beatrice is a 51-year old sculptor who creates precisely rendered objects out of found materials. She is married to fellow Canadian Isaac Friedman, himself a photographer of some acclaim. Despite Beatrice’s long-simmering affair with Gustave, their marriage has not been a turbulent or resentful one. But with the sudden death of their 18-year old daughter Ines, who was killed while riding a bicycle on a Montreal street, the two find themselves dwelling in separate agonies, unable to come together in their grief. They throw themselves into their work; Isaac takes a long photographic road trip and Beatrice shuts herself in her studio to write the letter to Ulrike. “There is a detail concerning Ines’ death that I cannot bring myself to reveal to Isaac,” writes Beatrice. This detail speeds her pen, compelling her to write to Ulrike.

Beatrice’s love affair with Gustave began when she was 17 and he was 28 during a summer spent at her parents’ cottage on Georgian Bay. Before the war, Gustave’s parents had put up Beatrice’s father while he was recuperating from a bicycling injury in Geneva. The families had maintained contact so when Gustave, a professor of political science, came to Canada for a conference, he was invited to stay. Despite their many differences – in their ages, in their nationalities, in their perspectives on life – the two quickly fell into long conversations, conversations that never really stopped over the course of decades, despite years of silence. “I love you. I’ve loved you since I was seventeen,” writes Beatrice to Gustave in a letter she now transcribes to Ulrike. “Of course, I don’t know you very well, but that has not prevented the passion I feel for you from accompanying me on my long journey to the present state of happiness in which I live my life with Isaac and Ines.”

“Can you love two people at once?” Isaac once asked Beatrice early in their courtship. At that moment she had no answer. But she grows to believe it is possible, as she eventually finds herself in love with two men – for she does indeed love Isaac, too. “What role has Isaac played in my life?” writes Beatrice, “In bed, his feet warm my feet, his stomach warms the small of my back, his hands wake my breasts. Together we produced a daughter.” That daughter, Ines, was brilliant and spirited, with a bright future that was extinguished in an instant. This loss has paralyzed Beatrice, who can now only write this letter, begging for judgment–forgiveness or condemnation?–from Ulrike.

Beatrice’s letter creates ripples in the smoothly flowing stream of Ulrike’s life but helps her recognize that she should be pleased with her situation. She has had some reasonable success as a pianist, lives a tidy, ordered life, and has a sweet lover, Max, who takes her to dinner and even does her laundry when she is overwhelmed. Still, she has been unable to loosen herself from the ambivalence and distrust she feels for her situation. Reading Beatrice’s letter forces Ulrike to reconsider her own history and world-view. This man, Gustave – her father, Beatrice’s lover, her mother’s betrayer, as walled-in and conflicted as his beloved Berlin, who has cast such a long shadow over her life, even in death – did she ever really know him? Can we ever really know the people we love? Can we trust them? Can we forgive them?

Written with great sophistication and lyricism, Martha Baillie’s The Shape I Gave You compels us to place ourselves in the roles of its complicated protagonists, to hold up and scrupulously examine our own histories, our own loves and deceits, in a new and penetrating light.
Martha Baillie was born in Toronto and educated in a French-English bilingual school. At seventeen she left for Scotland where she studied history and modern languages (French and Russian) at the University of Edinburgh. She completed her studies at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Toronto. While at university, Baillie be...
Title:The Shape I Gave You
Product dimensions:256 pages, 8.02 X 5.34 X 0.7 in
Shipping dimensions:256 pages, 8.02 X 5.34 X 0.7 in
Published:March 13, 2007
Publisher:Knopf Canada
Appropriate for ages:All ages
ISBN - 13:9780676977493

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