Spring is a time of change. Emerging leaves, melting snow, blooming flowers. So don’t be afraid to change, even in a tiny way. Step away from your desk, your counter, your indoor work space and go outside. Being outside changes your perspective. There’s a temperature you can’t control. A vista greets you, sometimes narrow or wide or small. And maybe sun, wind, maybe rain. An open freshness surrounding you. It always amazes me how a short walk beneath trees or a moment of staring at the sky can settle the spirit.
The composer Gustav Mahler knew this. He implies a restlessness, a fidgeting with life in winter, perhaps even a dissatisfaction. Whatever he meant, he captured how his angst disappears and settles down in spring.
This week I wish you a settled spirit.
“With the coming of spring, I am calm again.”– Gustav Mahler, composer
Today’s post focuses on Renia’s best friend and her boss in The Forgetting Flower. These two characters’ relationship sets the foundation for the novel. One’s death launches the story. You’ll see why they were friends and how they came to be who they are.
Best Friend Alain Tolbert
Alain is an event planner who regularly orders flower arrangements from Le Sanctuaire, the plant shop that Renia manages. He works for large charity organizations and the National Orchestra of France, planning large receptions, award ceremonies, and auctions. Alain was born in Orléans and was educated in a prestigious music academy before working intermittently as a violinist. As an adult, he came to Paris with his partner who was an oboe player. Though eventually the relationship fizzled out, Alain found work in the social functions related to the symphony, moreso than musical work, which was tutoring and performing. Eventually, he opened his own event planning business. Through his work for the orchestra, he met his partner, François, who was a cellist in the symphony.
Across the Street from Le Sanctuaire
Because Alain lived across the street from a flower shop in Paris, he found he could easily order arrangements from the shop owner, Valentina Palomer. To Alain, Palomer was a chatty, self-absorbed but kind-hearted woman who was extremely talented at making fanciful floral creations. She priced the arrangements modestly compared to other florists and delivered the arrangements to the sites, which was convenient. And so, Alain and Palomer became not only business colleagues but close acquaintances as Palomer often moved in the wealthier circles that Alain worked in. The two liked to gossip about the personalities in those circles and sometimes enjoyed a glass of wine together at Le Sanctuaire.
When Palomer hired a young Polish woman to manage Le Sanctuaire, Alain was delighted. The shop had been going stale in its inventory. Palomer had been focusing on flower arranging, which due to health issues, she often did at home. The young Pole, Renia, immediately repainted the outside of the shop, enlarged the plant inventory, created lush displays outside, and carried the latest natural soaps and cloths. Alain thought her talented and the young woman’s artistic eye impressed him. He particularly liked her botanical sketches and even sold a couple to his clients for her. That they both knew Palomer’s quirky, self-centered ways brought them even closer. Occasionally the two went, with François, to dinner and the movies.
Her Boss, Madame Valentina Palomer
Valentina Palomer was born right as World War II ended. She grew up the daughter of a military officer and homemaker near an air base outside of Marseille. This gave her an appreciation for France as a nation and the military specifically. In fact, during the Algerian War of the late 1950s when she was a teenager, she briefly volunteered as a nurse at the base. She helped treat wounded soldiers who’d just returned from the Algerian battlefield. Seeing the many wounded soldiers left a deep impression on her. She resented what she saw as the Algerians’ ferocity and longed for peace in France.
Later, as a young woman at university in Marseille, she met a Greek businessman and married. He was twelve years older than she and financially well established. As he was an importer of Mediterranean antiques, the two relocated to Paris to more easily carry out transactions with his wealthy clients. She assisted with his import business until she opened a gift shop featuring their smaller imported wares in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. By the two’s late middle age, her husband suffered a heart attack and died, leaving Palomer with more debt than she’d realized the two had had. It took her years to recover from the debt and nearly attain the financial comfort the two had earlier enjoyed.
As Palomer had never had children by choice, she threw herself into her gift shop, making it a booming success in the 1990s, selling clothing, home decorations, and cut flowers. But by the early 2000s, her arrangements brought in the bulk of her income but also took up most of her time. The store grew neglected and tired. Around 2005, a client of the shop named Alain Tolbert encouraged her to focus on the floral arrangements and plants instead. For a brief time, this improved sales at the shop though by about 2009, Palomer battled chronic illness and her lack of care made shop sales suffer.
Help for a Neglected Shop
By late 2009, she’d taken on a young Vietnamese-Frenchwoman named Minh. But Minh was a biology student and didn’t have the time nor experience to manage the shop. And so, Palomer put out a word to friends and colleagues that she needed a shop manager. By 2010, a wholesaler she worked with named Feliks Baranczki suggested his niece, Renia, who had recently moved to the Paris area. Though Palomer liked that Renia had studied art and business at her university in Poland, she was reluctant to hire her because of the young woman’s quiet stoic personality. She hired Renia anyway as she was dogged by a foot injury and suffered occasional migraines. She reassured herself that a relative of Monsieur Baranczki’s must be reliable and smart. Renia went to work at the shop immediately after their interview.
That Renia brought the shop slowly back to life was news to many in the neighborhood except Renia. She felt hemmed in by Palomer’s pendulous behavior between micromanaging and absence due to travel. Plus, Palomer’s impulsive decisions didn’t help the the shop either. Those decisions are part of the reason that Renia gets into trouble in The Forgetting Flower.
To read the rest of Alain’s, Palomer’s, and Renia’s story, CLICK HERE.
Photo by Olena Sergienko
Last week, I wrote about the music that’s heard or played when the characters Alain and Madame Palomer are “on stage” in The Forgetting Flower. In this post, I’ll talk about the music of my main character, Renia, and her parents. Renia’s choices are about her moods and about what she sees as best for the shop’s atmosphere. Her parents, still in Kraków, listen to more classic Polish composers.
When Renia’s by herself and feeling happy, oftentimes in her apartment, she listens to Chopin. This mazurka is one of several the Polish composer wrote. Unlike the dramatic études or soulful nocturnes, the mazurkas (named for a Polish folk dance) are brighter and usually feature a repeating melody or phrase.
Here’s the famed Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin’s Mazurka in B minor Op. 33 No. 4. Horowitz was a master. You might recognize the melody.
For a high-quality CD/MP3 of Chopin’s Mazurkas, I recommend Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recording. It’s lovely and full of heart.
For reasons I don’t want to pinpoint lest I reveal spoilers, Renia listens to Satie’s “Je Te Veux” waltz when she’s feeling a bit sad but ready to move on and overall feels content. I thought the music’s playfulness and the French title, which translates to “I want you,” was appropriate for her feelings about Paris and all else.
This video shows the Russian pianist Anatoly Sheludyakov playing Satie’s “Je Te Veux” at the University of Georgia.
For a recording, see The Magic of Satie by Jean-Yves Thibaudet. It’s lovely music for Sunday morning tea or coffee. You can hear the influence of Chopin all over the place. Link below.
Music of Le Sanctuaire
As a plant shop owner, Renia needs to create an inviting mood for her customers. First, unlike Minh who favors pop, Renia chooses classical music, Mozart and Vivaldi, in an effort to create a sophisticated atmosphere. She chooses Classical Era composers whose uniformly rhythmic and rapid melodies sound cheery and optimistic to listeners.
Here’s the Emerson String Quartet, who I adore, playing Mozart’s String Quartet No. 14 K. 387.
They also have an album of Mozart’s string quartets, which is beautiful. It’s also a go-to CD for Sunday mornings.
I don’t think there’s any composer who captures fancy joy better than Vivaldi. (Haydn may come close.) His Concerto for Two Trumpets is brassy and pronounced. It embodies the skipping delight and danceable rhythms so archetypal in the Classical Era of music.
Here’s a concert in Japan. I have no idea who the orchestra is so if you know, please tell me!
You can always rely on Decca for excellent recordings. The 2-CD set below captures all of the vibrancy and delight of Vivaldi. And the trumpet concerto is included.
Renia’s Mother’s Music
In The Forgetting Flower, there’s a short scene where Renia’s mother is knitting in the family home’s living room and ‘Chant du Voyager’ by Paderewski (pronounced Pah-dah-rev-ski) is playing on the radio. Paderewski is like the Bach of Poland, having written concertos, symphonies, sonatas, opera, and solo works. Every older Polish person knows him because he was involved in Polish politics in the early 20th Century and then heavily toured in America. He also lived in California and became a vintner! In his youth, he was a star and quite the hottie. So it wouldn’t be uncommon for his work to be often played on Polish radio.
Sang Mi Chung plays Paderewski’s ‘Chant du voyageur’ on her album of Paderewski’s works. It’s a clear, crisp recording and wonderful interpretation. You can buy it here. It doesn’t seem to be available as a CD.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of youtube videos of Paderewski’s music being played live but here is a precious old video of Liberace playing Paderewski’s famous Minuet. Despite the hiss, it’s awesome.
Finally, Renia’s father, Feodor, plays Chopin at home for recreation. I refer to him playing Chopin’s Études (or “studies”) in one scene. Chopin wrote several brilliant études but Étude in A flat major Op. 25 No. 1 particularly soars so I thought I’d share it here. I’m a lucky woman because my husband often practices Chopin études at home.
Szymon Nehring plays this brilliantly at the Fryderyk Chopin institute.
Here’s a different étude but another favorite, Op. 10. No. 3, a classic, played by Evgeny Kissin. The video should be cued at 3:32 when the song begins.
Finally, Chopin’s “Revolutionary” étude, inspired by the attack on Warsaw by the Russians, is such a wild vigorous piece I have to include it. It blows a hole in your heart. Again, Evgeny Kissin plays as the wonder he is. Check out what his left hand is starting at the 17 second mark.
For a recording, check out Murray Perahia’s Chopin: Études Op. 10 and Op. 25. It’s a rapturous recording. And Perahia looks like a bad ass on the cover.
I have always loved music. When I was little, I loved pop music for its catchy hooks. Then when I was a teenager, I loved rock music for its cool riffs. As a young adult, I was into alternative before my love later deepened into jazz and classical music. I was a musician myself for a while (drummer) and worked as a music editor. So, I guess it’s no surprise that as I wrote my novel, I unconsciously included music in The Forgetting Flower. It appears on the first page and then several times throughout the narrative until the final paragraph.
I thought it’d be fun to take readers on a journey of the music of The Forgetting Flower. I love all of the pieces in the book and they reflect each of the characters and situations they are attached to. But after collecting the pieces, I realized I had about 10 to share, so here’s the first part of my two blog posts on The Classical Music of The Forgetting Flower.
Alain’s Rachmaninoff Concerto
The main character, Renia, has a friend who was a classical violinist and became an event organizer. He’s a savvy, charming man who favors the Romantic period. He loves the stormy drama of the Russian composers, specifically Rachmaninoff. So as the book opens we hear Rachmaninoff’s famous Concerto No. 2 Op. 18.
I’ve queued the video to the mark where pianist Evgeny Kissin begins the dark, foreboding introduction that portends the entire piece before the violins swirl through their melody, creating a tense moody rapture. Whenever I listen, I imagine a spy running through Red Square in Moscow.
Of course, in The Forgetting Flower, a different dramatic event has happened. It’s specifically at about 35:00 mark that I imagine the concerto blasting from Alain’s apartment as Renia stares up at his balcony. This musical climax is so lush and bold, I can barely watch without shedding tears. You can hear where Gershwin might have been influenced, you can hear a melody that may be familiar. Check it out.
Here’s the YouTube clip:
If you want a CD/MP3 of the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 2 Op. 18, I recommend the Van Cliburn recording. His performance blew away the world when he was young and this is a later performance with better sound quality (photo above).
Madame Palomer’s Music
Renia’s boss is an old-fashioned fancy lady. She and Alain had first met when he organized a classical music concert reception that she created the flower arrangements for. They were friends for years. Palomer, a woman who aspires to be wealthier than she is, has sophisticated, if sometimes rococo, tastes. There are a few scenes where she’s playing classical music in The Forgetting Flower. Her choices are always romantic and grand. Here are the three clips that reflect her.
She would love Berlioz. One, because he was French, and two, because he was frilly and dreamy. The Symphonie Fantastique was supposedly about an artist and his unrequited love.
Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
For a good recording, check out this one by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
CD/MP3: Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique
Schumann’s Piano Concerto would be a favorite because of its lamenting opening and sweeping piano rise. It’s also a timelessly popular piece with recognizable melodies. Palomer would be attracted to those familiar phrases and the light-on-its-feet quality. In this video, check out the kick ass Martha Argerich as she dives straight into the heart of it, then lightly dances on the keys. Soon, the violins rise up (1:25) in a brilliant passage that makes it hard to breathe for me. The crescendo rushes and drops into a very recognizable, descending piano line around the 2:30 mark.
Schumann Piano Concerto, in A minor, Op. 54
And here’s a recording of her playing it (with a different orchestra but of fine quality).
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite
Finally, at Christmas time, there’s no other piece that Madame Palomer would play than of course the classic Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite. How beautiful is this?
And a decent CD/MP3: Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite
Are you as exhausted as I am? Listening to music, especially music like this, always makes me emotional. I get so lost in it. And we haven’t even gotten to my favorite composer yet: Chopin. He’s one of Renia’s favorites too. In my next post, I’ll be talking about the music she plays, music both for herself and what she thinks is best for optimal shopping in Le Sanctuaire. Plus, a couple of pieces heard in her childhood home.