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 became involved in theatre. She continued to act after graduation, taking scene study workshops and classes in voice and movement, while supporting herself by waitressing and teaching private French classes. In 1981, she took an extended trip through parts of Asia including Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Burma, Nepal and India. This experience inspired her to switch her focus from acting to writing. Upon her return to Canada, she acquired an Ontario teaching certificate and briefly taught ESL to adults and French immersion to grade five students. Today, she has worked part-time for the Toronto Public Library for nearly twenty years and performs as a storyteller in schools, daycares, and at the Toronto Festival of Storytelling. Canoeing and hiking are two of her principal passions, along with visual art, the theatre and opera.
Baillie’s first novel, My Sister Esther, was published in 1995, followed by Madame Balashovskaya’s Apartment in 1999. She has had poems published in journals including Descant, Prairie Fire and The Antigonish Review. Baillie has been awarded grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. She lives in Toronto with her daughter and husband.
About writing The Shape I Gave You, Baillie recalls: "The idea for the title came from remembering the experience of standing behind a statue of a crouching Venus in the Louvre. A child’s vestigial hand, tiny and perfect and severed at the wrist, was attached to Venus’ back, just to the left of her spine. The sight of that hand made me feel I was witnessing a child in the act of giving shape to his mother. It was an image that haunted me for quite a while after I first saw it. The tiny hand came as such a shock. Once, an entire cupid would have been clinging to his mother’s back, or climbing on for a ride. All that remained was his little, severed hand."
"The Shape I Gave You is a richly evocative story about Ulrike, a musician trapped in the recurring themes of her father's adultery. She is forced to exhume dead loves and lives in this sophisticated novel about how the past haunts the present."
–Sandra Martin, Elle Canada
"[An] old-fashioned quality . . . gives Baillie’s work its charm and elegance. Her stories have weight and value history. . . . Baillie’s made a strong statement on the pain of grief and the unexpected way in which compassion can be sown. She’s also shown that with each new novel her voice becomes stronger."
"[T]he story pleasantly seduces you. . . . There are so many strengths . . . [The Shape I Gave You] does what the best novels do: it not only takes you deep into the characters and their beliefs and preoccupations, it makes you reflect on the choices you made in your own life."
–Winnipeg Free Press
"[W]e put down the book commending Baillie not only for the poetic grace of her prose, but for her masterful delivery of an exquisite plot twist. . . . The novel’s precise, multi-faceted construction includes astute commentary upon the nature of letter-writing and of literature . . . This is a novel to savour rather than devour. Essentially monogamous people plagued by a singular adulterous temptation of the nostalgic kind will want to send Baillie a thank you note, for understanding."
–The Gazette (Montreal)
"Haunting…. What would you do in such a situation, with no one to unburden your heart to? The best novels pose such compelling moral questions, and this is a very good novel. . . . A literary style that occasionally echoes both Anne Michaels and Elizabeth Smart. . . . Full of finely wrought detail. . . . These are grown-up thoughts and this is a grown-up, rather European-feeling novel."
–Bronwyn Drainie, Quill & Quire
Praise for Madame Balashovskaya’s Apartment:
"What I would give to be invited to a soiree in Madame Balashovskaya's apartment.....Baillie gives richness to these lives in a book filled with beautiful writing."
–The Globe and Mail (Laura Robinson)
"....the portrait of Eugenie is a heart stopping evocation of a life's slow fade.....Baillie conveys both the beauty and the beastliness of the rain-soaked metropolis, its café culture and the pointed ambitions of its intelligentsia, in what turns out to be a nugget of a novel."
–Now (Toronto), Susan G. Cole
Praise for My Sister Esther:
"....impressive for its language, superb characterization and almost quiet desperation of day to day living... Baillie gives us a sincere, unpretentious novel that impresses, even haunts."
–Rob McLennan, Ottawa X Press