In Set Yourself Free Ellery, Ellery Roulet is an American with a career in Paris and she has made an emotionally crushing discovery. It threatens her marriage to Julien and the life she knows as a mother to twins Evie and Maddie. The story is told from Ellery’s point of view as well as that of Julien and his lover, Katrine. Carolyn Moncel presents a compelling story and in fifty pages conveys the hopes and angst of all three.
While Ellery’s struggle is perhaps the most developed, Julien and Katrine weigh their choices with equal depth of feeling. Moncel is adept at presenting the characters as scoundrels, in the minds of the others, and then conveying each person’s feelings in such a way that it is possible to have sympathy for each, in turn.
Because it is a short work, it is difficult to talk about most aspects of the plot without revealing too much about it. There is a wonderful scene in which Ellery and Julien’s twin daughters become aware of how upset Ellery is and discuss their fears about their parents’ presumed marital discord. It is the only part of the book shown through the twins’ point of view, and their perceptions and qualms are very realistic.
There is occasional dialogue in French, and in some books this is presented clumsily. Not so here. As one who has been to Paris several times, I could envision the backdrop. There was little description of either the apartment or the unique environment that is Paris. Sparse writing can be beautiful, but I was glad to have my own mental pictures so I could “see” the characters in their respective settings.
The novella’s ultimate question is can love survive betrayal? Moncel shows there is not only no easy answer but there are many ways to consider the question.
The two short stories are Maybe Just Leave, Steve and Maybe in Death, Beth. Betrayal and loyalty are again themes in Maybe Just Leave, Steve, which is told from Cinnamon’s point of view and show’s Cinnamon’s evolving feelings for Steve’s wife, Leah. There’s a neat twist at the end. While I saw it quickly, not all would, and it is handled deftly.
Maybe in Death, Beth shows the rewards of “working it out.” Herman and Beth, in their mid-nineties, had their relationship struggles early in their life together, but they have made it to the point of not just love but total comfort with one another.
The two short stories are set in Chicago, which was Ellery’s American home, and it is Paris that Leah wants to live in and work in for a time. The quick mention of “great granddaughter Leah” in Maybe in Death, Beth seems to add another link among the three stories.
I did not count to see whether Moncel actually presents five reasons to leave your lover, but that’s not important. Set Yourself Free Ellery and its companion short stories provide a pleasant, and provocative, evening read. I give them five stars.