Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Dinner with Madame Bovary

How could I possibly host a book-club dinner on chipped china and a second-hand table?

With rooms the color of a dead armadillo, peeling wallpaper in the bath, and red-“brick” linoleum in the kitchen, how could I ever host a book club in my recently purchased 1958 ranch? The French provincial furniture, the cabinets full of chipped china, and kitchen gadgets resembling torture devices, all inherited from the seller, fell far below the design standards of House Beautiful. My slapdash housekeeping would earn a wagging finger from Heloise and send Madame Bovary calling for the smelling salts. Poor Emma. No wonder Flaubert’s masterpiece, named after his most beguiling and dismaying character, unhappy with her house and husband, became my book-club selection for November.

Thankfully, my home would undergo a semi-transformation with the help of a best friend and successful interior designer. After my tearful breakdown on the phone because the postage-sized paint swatches were inadequate to the task—the Persian Violet I had painted my bedroom was a color only Mata Hari could love—she came to the rescue with five gallons of dove-gray paint tinged with hints of pink and lavender. Even now, when the sun streams through the windows’ white sheers, I feel like I’m curled inside a seashell. She also insisted that pale-pink light bulbs make a woman look ten years younger (a modern take on Blanche DuBois’ magical paper lanterns), and would soften the violently violet bedroom walls. A coat of white paint updated the dark, boxy vanity in the bathroom, but with resources dwindling, the beige wallpaper and gold plastic mirror with attached decorative lights would have to wait.

As the newest book-club member, I had strategically avoided playing host, enviously basking in the glow of the other women’s artfully designed homes, free of shedding dogs and a seed-tossing lovebird. I wolfed down their gourmet cooking, convinced it was all better than anything I could plate up on chipped china and serve on my second-hand dining table. A talisman of sorts, the table came littered with Merlins and unicorns from a Charlotte Avenue junk store called the Crystal Dragon. It was my first purchase when the end of a long-term relationship left me without a car or a place to live, and boxes of books without shelves to put them on.

At night, huddled in bed with my two dogs and my pink lights blazing, I read Madame Bovary. Like Emma, I envisioned a home with a marble foyer, a curved stairway, and high ceilings. I longed for yellow-silk draperies, Limoges china, and passionate encounters on a velvet settee.

Unlike Emma, I had no help to cook for my upcoming guests, so I turned to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It proved a culinary Mt. Everest, insurmountable without meat cleavers and plenty of oxygen. All those ingredients. All those wooden spoons. All that work. Nevertheless, I went to sleep with dreams of beaten egg whites and buttery Madeleines dancing in my head. Once again, I consulted my designer friend, a confident party host. Her enthusiasm proved disheartening. For a tablecloth, she suggested frothy layers of silk organza over tulle gathered in swaths of ribbons. I got nervous, imagining the skirted half of a gown Marie Antoinette wore on her way to the guillotine. I would need fresh floral arrangements and tea lights placed strategically throughout the house. “Won’t the pink light bulbs do?” I whined. A four-course meal beginning with a soup-tasting served in champagne flutes would be tres chic. And the grand finale? Cupcakes with a butter-cream frosting baked in French toile-motif holders.

I became as dizzy with panic as the debt-ridden and desperate Emma and began to regret ever joining a book club. My idea of a nice cheese tray accompanied by inexpensive yet respectable bottles of Chenin Blanc and dessert petit fours from that tres chic bakery in Le Publix seemed so bourgeois. And what was I thinking by taking on homeownership anyway? A yard needs mowing, floors need vacuuming, and dead armadillos need painting. My gypsy dream of pulling a cool silver airstream behind my cool silver Subaru, the two dogs in my backseat with Monument Valley’s beautifully desolate landscape stretching out before us, seemed as far away as the final payment on my thirty-year mortgage. I would be dead by then.

All the women showed up that warm November night. We sat elbow-to-elbow around my liberation dining table, sipping champagne (inexpensive but methode champenoise, of course) until well after midnight, the time when Emma and guests arrived at Rouen balls. I used every chipped dish and glass in the kitchen. Everyone raved over the rotisserie chicken bought at the local Piggly Wiggly in a last-ditch effort to have something more substantial than cheese. And I was the only one who thought the chocolate cake, topped with real whipped cream, was a little dry: even Julia would have approved of this single homemade touch. Much was made of the warm knotty-pine paneling in the den, the French provincial furniture, and the stacks of books that sufficed as décor.

I’m not sure what I had to say about Madame Bovary. For most of the evening, I sat smiling and taking in the presence of the brilliant women around my table. If only Emma had known a similar group of women with whom she could share her expectations, her disappointments, and her victories. If only Emma’s idea of freedom had not confined her to the things she craved and had not condemned her to the cruel whims of others. Freedom, simple in its complexity yet no less hard-earned, like a second-hand table set for celebration, real and not imagined.