The Suitors - By Cecile David-Weill

Spring 2007

It was a Sunday like any other. My son, Felix, was with his father. My sister and I always arranged to have dinner at least once a month with our parents, and now that May was almost over, the weather was becoming pleasant, so our conversation that night would inevitably focus on our plans for the summer. I must have been really bored given that I was looking forward to an evening I had already been through year after year, like clockwork! I felt a twinge of melancholy; my life was decidedly uneventful. I had Felix’s well-being and my patients’ anxieties to keep me busy, but no passions of my own. I felt empty. In the end, though, I convinced myself that there was nothing wrong with taking pleasure in a family ritual I knew completely by heart.

I could see it all in detail: Marie and I would meet in the courtyard at five to nine to compliment each other on our outfits before braving the indifference of our mother, who never seemed to notice our efforts to meet with her sartorial approval. Sunday dinners were a contest of couture: we had to appear both stylish and relaxed, in a gently tailored suit, for example, or some chic sportswear. It was a game at which my sister was an acknowledged champion.

We would troop to the kitchen to fetch the light supper the cook had left for us on his day off, and then the table conversation would naturally turn to the approaching summer.

“Always the same guests!” my father would complain with a sigh.

My mother, her chestnut hair in a chignon, elegantly thin in a smart housecoat (that old-fashioned garment halfway between a robe and an evening gown), would protest that she was doing her very best. Wasn’t she working hard enough as it was to bring fresh faces to the usual cast of characters? It was much more difficult than it looked to come up, year after year, with people who were well mannered, interesting, clever conversationalists, but not freeloaders. Then my mother would pause, pretending to surrender.

“After all, you’re right. Still, I don’t know … My latest attempts … Remember Joy, Moïra, Samuel … The graft didn’t … didn’t take. They seemed charming, and then … disaster.”

Marie and I would simply look at each other to make sure we weren’t imagining things. Since no one else ever seemed to notice whenever our mother fumbled, disconcertingly, for words, any comments my sister and I might have made would have sounded mean, bringing a sour note to the pleasure of discussing our summer house.

Because for us, L’Agapanthe was a haven of happiness.

Sheltered from time, it was a world of its own, one of luxury and lighthearted enjoyment. We spoke of it with pride, the way other people talk about the family eccentric or some colorful character they feel privileged to know. L’Agapanthe was not the ordinary summer-house of rose-colored childhood, conjuring nostalgia and memories out of bread and jam, French toast, and skinned knees. No. During the summer months, just like an ocean liner, the house required birds of passage and a large staff. In short, it was what is properly referred to as a “bonne maison.”

This shameless, snobbish understatement referred to the handful of houses around the world on that same grand scale, combining luxury, perfect taste, and a refined way of life. In the same way they would have said “grandes familles” or “grands hôtels,” the servants in such houses referred to them as “grandes maisons,” and without describing them or defining what they had in common, these experts could have rattled off a list on Corsica, in Mexico, in Tuscany, or on Corfu, an inventory far more private than the host of palatial European hotels touted everywhere in travel guides and magazines.

These houses always had:


Walk-in cold rooms

Bell boards for the upstairs rooms

Vans for grocery shopping

Cupboards for breakfast trays

A kitchen (for the cooks)

A pantry (for the butlers)

A laundry room with linen closets

A room with a copper sink for arranging flowers and storing vases



And extensive servants’ quarters

From these houses were banished all dishwashers, microwave ovens, televisions in lounges, TV dinners, easygoing informality, and any form of casual attire.

One of the chief criteria of a “good house” was the beauty of the place, from which the patina of time must have effaced all triviality, a requirement that disqualified even the grandest of modern houses. Not even historical monuments were allowed into the fold, those stately homes whose owners, rarely wealthy, often