On a warm day in August, Rosalind Peoples is taking a bath in a huge white claw-foot bathtub with enormous brass fixtures, the bathroom filled with summer sunlight. Rosalind and her mother Dez Peoples, a well-known American poet, are the guests of Oliver Rochambeau, a French movie star, at his spectacular estate in Burgundy, a 19th Century villa surrounded by vineyards and olive groves.
Dez is sixty-eight, Rosalind thirty, and they are ostensibly visiting Oliver, who is sixty-four, to work on a screenplay based on Dez’s collection of poems In Lausanne. However, the real purpose of their visit is for Oliver and Dez to carry on with their love affair—Oliver married, Dez not.
Rosalind wishes Oliver would divorce his wife and marry Dez, though Dez says she doesn’t want to marry Oliver. For his part, Oliver loves his wife, the delightful British actress Aurelia Nichols, and has no plans to divorce her. Aurelia spends most of her time in England where she is a mainstay on a long-running BBC drama and doesn’t mind Oliver’s affairs so long as he is a good and loving husband, which he is.
Dez and Rosalind have four months remaining on a five-year fellowship that has provided them with a lovely house in Lausanne, Switzerland, along with generous monthly stipends. At year’s end, barring unforeseen largesse, they must return to America, specifically to the small town of Ophelia near Seattle, though neither of them wants to go back to America. They have applied for permanent residency in Switzerland, but have been told the chances of gaining such status are slim.
Five months ago, Dez published In Love Poems, her sixteenth volume of poetry. The book of seventy-seven love poems came out in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, and Portuguese editions simultaneously with the English edition and is a great success in Europe.
The screenplay of In Lausanne has yet to materialize because Oliver and his movie sidekick Paul Descartes and the several writers they hired over the last year and eight months have failed to come up with a story line uniting the poems into a movie Paul and Oliver want to make.
Rosalind was in love with Paul for several months after he and Oliver descended upon them in Lausanne to secure the movie rights to In Lausanne, and Paul was likewise smitten with Rosalind. But unlike Oliver, Paul is not one to have affairs, and he remained faithful to his then-fiancé now-wife Mariana Borba rather than succumb to his attraction to Rosalind.
After recovering from her infatuation with Paul, Rosalind met a charming Swiss fellow named Leon, and they have been lovers for seven months now. Leon is a piano tuner and pianist a few years older than Rosalind. He says he will gladly marry her, which would allow her to go on living in Switzerland but won’t solve Dez’s citizenship dilemma; and Rosalind wouldn’t think of staying in Europe if her mother is exiled to America.
Hunger eventually overcomes the pleasure of lolling in the warm bath, so Rosalind climbs out of the tub and stands at the second-story window overlooking Oliver’s vineyards. As she gazes down at the vines heavy with grapes, she is startled by a vision of how to shape the forty-two poems of In Lausanne into a comedy drama she knows Paul and Oliver and Dez will love.
“Oh my God,” she says in English, which she rarely speaks now that French is her everyday language. “How did we not see it?”
Rosalind finds Dez and Oliver on the veranda having coffee at a big dining table shaded by an enormous blue umbrella, both wearing floppy sunhats and short-sleeved shirts and dark glasses.
Dez has the dreamy look of a woman well loved and appears to Rosalind to have shed ten years since she and Oliver began their love affair a year ago.
Oliver, his mother British, his father French, a rakishly handsome fellow with curly black hair going gray, greets Rosalind in English with a Devonshire accent. “Ah fair Rosalind. Did you tell the kitchen what you want for breakfast?”
“I did,” says Rosalind, sitting across from Oliver and Dez. “Merci.”
“I’m taking your mother to see Cathedrale Saint-Etienne today,” says Oliver, smiling warmly at Rosalind. “Would you like to join us?”
“No merci,” says Rosalind, glad to see her mother so relaxed and happy. “I’m working on something I hope to dazzle you with when Paul and Mariana come tomorrow.”
“Is this about the screenplay?” says Oliver, excited. “Tell us.”
“Not quite yet,” says Rosalind, nodding graciously to the young woman who serves her coffee. “I want to make sure I’m not imagining things before I make my presentation.”
“I know there’s a movie in there,” says Oliver, making a fist and thumping the table. “But it eludes us.”
“Thank goodness I don’t care,” says Dez, gazing at her lover. “Though I’d love to see you as the gardener and Paul as the man who is forever lost.”
Oliver frowns. “I, the gardener? No, I see Paul in that role.”
“Either way,” says Dez, looking at Rosalind. “Who do you see as the gardener, darling?”
“I’m less concerned with casting right now,” says Rosalind, sipping her coffee, “than with narrative flow.”
“Plot,” says Oliver, beseeching the sky. “The elusive plot.”
“Elusive?” says Rosalind, arching her eyebrow. “Or too obvious?”
“If you find a viable plot for this movie,” says Oliver, raising a declarative finger, “we will hire you to write the screenplay.”
“Then I’ll finally have a career,” says Rosalind, making a goofy face at her mother. “Other than attendant to the queen.”
“I prefer duchess,” says Dez, making an equally goofy face at her daughter. “Far too much responsibility being a queen.”
When Oliver and Dez motor off to the cathedral, Rosalind sequesters herself in her bedroom with a copy of In Lausanne and writes the titles of the forty-two poems onto pieces of white typing paper, one title writ large per page. Now she numbers the titles 1 to 42 and lays the pages out on her queen-sized bed in seven rows, six pages to a row.
After studying the arrangement of pages for some minutes, she moves Poem #7, The Gardener Goes Fishing, to where Poem #1 is, and moves Poem #1, The Unlikely Rose, to where Poem #14 is, and moves Poem #14, The Cook and the Mouse and the Cat, to where Poem #2 is, and continues reordering the pages until all the poems have changed places.
Satisfied with the new order of poems, she renumbers the pages to match their places in the modified sequence, gathers the pages in their new order, sits down on the bed, and slowly leafs through the pages to confirm the new sequence does, indeed, make an intriguing story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Walking in the olive grove in the late afternoon, Rosalind considers whether she wants to write a screenplay based on her mother’s poems, and she decides she does.
And the moment she makes her decision, she feels something shift inside her.
“I know what I am,” she says, looking up at the myriad silver leaves. “I’m a story teller.”
Paul Descartes, a beautiful Frenchman in his thirties famous for his comedies, and Paul’s Portuguese wife Mariana Borba, also in her thirties, famous for her beauty, arrive at Oliver’s villa the next morning to stay for a few days and unwind after six weeks of filming a big-budget thriller in Miami.
During lunch on the veranda, Mariana says in French, “This was the last American movie I will ever be in. Paul is contracted to do another, but I would rather make movies about real people, not violent cartoons. I did not become an actor to be in cartoons.”
“The Americans are very good at choreographing car chases and scenes of violence,” says Paul, nodding in agreement, “but their stories and dialogue are idiotic. For example, in the movie we just made, which they are calling Secret Killers—original, no?—the hero played by Lloyd Carter, a rogue government agent fighting a host of villains, says to me, ‘We go through that door, our chances of surviving are not good.’ And I reply, ‘What else is new?’ We shoot the scene this way seven times and it falls flat every time. So I say to the director, ‘What if instead of What else is new? I say Then why go through the door?’ And when I suggest this to him, everyone on the set laughs.”
“A big laugh,” says Mariana, laughing at her memory of the film crew laughing uproariously at Paul’s rejoinder.
“And Lloyd,” says Paul, continuing, “gets very excited and says, ‘Yes, then I will say You got a better idea? And I say, ‘We could go for coffee at a nice café.’ And again, everyone on the set bursts into laughter. And the director glares at me and says, “This is not a comedy.” And I say ‘Yes, I know, but you do want a laugh here, don’t you?’ And he says, ‘That’s none of your business. That’s why we have writers.’ So I shut up because they were paying me more money than I have ever been paid to be in a movie and we did the scene again with What else is new? And that was that.”
“You could not pay me to go to this movie,” says Mariana, shaking her head. “Though they paid me a fortune to be in five scenes with Lloyd. In three scenes I wear bikinis, in one scene a transparent nightgown, in the last scene… nothing.”
“For that,” says Oliver, nodding thoughtfully, “I would go to this movie.”
“Speaking of movies,” says Paul, turning to Rosalind, “Oliver tells me you have a new idea for In Lausanne? I so want to make this movie, but we have yet to find the story that ties everything together.”
“I found it,” says Rosalind, smiling at her mother.
“And if you like her story,” says Dez, looking at Paul, “Oliver promised Rosalind you would hire her to write the screenplay.”
“Yes, of course,” says Paul, nodding emphatically. “What is the story?”
“I will make my presentation after lunch,” says Rosalind, sipping her wine. “Lest we be too distracted by this marvelous food.”
When everyone is seated in the living room, Rosalind stands before them and says, “Once upon a time there were four people. A charming fellow who is forever lost, a woman who is a cook and speaks to animals, a man who is a gardener and speaks to plants and insects and birds, and a woman who has a dog and is looking for love. In fact, they are all looking for love.
“At the beginning of our story we spend some time with each of the four people and we are fascinated and amused by their eccentricities and kindness to others. Then each of them sets out on a journey. The woman with a dog is the only one of the four who knows she is looking for love, but they all are, and that becomes clear as we watch them on their adventures.
“Then the woman who is a cook meets the fellow who is forever lost and they fall in love, and the gardener meets the woman with a dog and they fall in love, too. However, through a series of delightful twists and turns, the gardener becomes paired with the woman who is a cook, and the man who is forever lost becomes lovers with the woman with a dog, and in the end they are neighbors, all of them good friends. The final scene is a supper in the home of the woman who is a cook, our foursome very much who they have always been, only now they are together and content.”
Having told the story, Rosalind presents Oliver and Paul and Mariana each with a list of the forty-two poems from In Lausanne in the order of the story she just told.
Paul quickly reads the list and jumps up to embrace Rosalind. “You found our movie,” he cries. “It was there all the while.”
“Fantastic,” says Mariana, the next to embrace Rosalind. “Now this is a movie I will gladly pay to see.”
“Oh you won’t have to pay,” says Rosalind, looking into Mariana’s eyes. “Because you will be the woman with a dog.”
Upon their return to Lausanne, Dez gets a call from Karl Fleury, the sponsor of their fellowship from the University of Lausanne, asking if he might come see her.
Karl comes to lunch the next day and during dessert Karl announces that because of Dez’s valuable contributions to Swiss culture, attested to by a petition signed by hundreds of Swiss artists and writers and academics, Dez and Rosalind have been granted permanent residency by the Swiss government.
“And,” says Karl, his eyes sparkling, “the university would like to offer you a three-year extension of your fellowships and residency at The Writer’s House.”
“Oh Karl, dear Karl, thank you,” says Dez, rising to embrace Rosalind. “Now I won’t have to kill myself.”
“You’re not serious,” says Karl, startled into nervous laughter.
mother and daughter cling to each other
sobbing in relief and joy.