A bright student once told me that she felt the literary canon was pointing at her threateningly:
• Edna Pontellier walks into the ocean.
• Lily Bart swallows too many sleeping pills.
• Emma Bovary chokes on poison.
I interrupted her list and with great care - lest I burn her mind to a crisp with my wisdom - explained that it's better to study these novels that accurately reflect a repressive society than to read "empowerment propaganda" dressed up as literature.
"Yes," she sighed with patience that would serve her well when dealing with other bores. "But most women don't kill themselves. They just muddle along."
I kept thinking of that insight and the vast, quiet tragedy it implies while reading a new novel by Catherine Texier called "Victorine." The story arises from a painful chapter buried in the author's family history. Texier's great-grandmother abandoned her children and husband in France at the turn of the 19th-century to follow a customs officer to Indochina (now Vietnam). Texier uses those threads to spin the tale of a restless woman caught in a tangle of responsibilities and desires.
Madame Bovary n'est pas elle. But Flaubert's classic hovers around the hem of this novel. As a girl in Vendée, Victorine is the precocious one, the one who dares to stare at the young oystermen and fantasize. She starts work early - celebrated as the youngest teacher in France - and quickly falls in love with a fellow teacher.
Texier is particularly interested in the moral rules laid out for young women, lines that run like the perspective in an Escher drawing. Victorine's father encourages her to be a modern working woman but roars when she steps outside his traditional sexual mores. Her boyfriend chuckles about his previous exploits while expecting her to remain pure - except with him. The Church offers absolution, but only to the unfallen.
Caught in a "blurry, in-between land of fuzzy boundaries and split reality," Victorine finds herself confused by her desires and her aspirations. She's excited by her boyfriend's sexual experience and its intimation of a world beyond her own, but when she gets pregnant and they decide to marry, "The relief that rolls into her heart is mixed with a distinct chill."
In the blink of an eye, Victorine is blessed with two healthy children and a house to manage. She knows it's every woman's dream, and yet "how is it," Texier asks, "that no peace and quiet descend into Victorine's heart but instead that strange, dull feeling?"
The problem, which the author portrays so carefully, is that Victorine is self-aware enough to be tortured by her conflicting desires for adventure and domesticity. "Sometimes I'm afraid I'm not such a good mother," she confesses, unsettled by her growing sense of inadequacy and the strangely alluring idea that she might be a better parent if she weren't stuck with her children all the time.
If we can refer to a novel as a "woman's book" without condescension, this is an excellent one. Though it's set 100 years and 3,000 miles away, it explores the same frustration that burns in Tom Perrotta's bitter new novel, "Little Children." Annoyed that Victorine wants to work, her husband asks that question still roiling modern parents, "We have children. Who's going to take care of them?"
With no satisfactory answer and no love for her philandering husband, Victorine plans to abandon them all and slip away to Indochina with a customs officer who promises to show her real life. She imagines "there would be nothing petty or sordid" in this clean break. "It would be romantic: a leap into an enchanted world." But of course, the same self-consciousness that made her domestic life so stifling riddles her romantic adventure with guilt. Her lover insists, "If you're never satisfied with what you have, you'll always be miserable," but that's no help to a woman who can never have what will satisfy her.
When the story moves to Indochina, Texier captures not only the lush, exotic locale, but the complicated moral and political climate of the French opium colony. Victorine immediately feels the awkwardness of this place that reflects her own conflicted heart. All the sordidness of the drug trade is camouflaged by the finery of French culture, but once again she's too smart and too thoughtful to let herself drift away like her compatriots in a haze of delight.
Texier has an unsparing sense of ethical complexity, the partial satisfaction that must suffice for a person torn between irreconcilable desires and responsibilities. Clearly, that's better than drowning, overdosing, or choking to death, but as Victorine learns, it takes more stamina to endure.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. E-mail Ron Charles.