Gay Daly
November 24, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

Colette is a biographer’s dream: She was probably the greatest French woman novelist of this century. She was also a trailblazer for other women, in public and in private. As an actress, she reveled in baring her breasts on stage; as a journalist, she reported from the front in World War I. A passionate woman, she had three husbands and numerous lovers, many of them women, and her novels, the sensuous fruit of these relationships, were an emotional and sexual revelation to her female readers.

Colette was capable of frightening selfishness (she farmed out her baby daughter to her in-laws and saw the child only once or twice a year for brief visits), as well as great generosity (she paid a friend’s mounting medical bills without her knowledge). The sheer complexity of her character might have daunted lesser biographers, but Thurman, also the author of a brilliant rendering of Isak Dinesen’s life, is unafraid of difficult women.

Her genius in Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette, nominated for a National Book Award, is to show every one of Colette’s clay feet (and believe us, she had more than two) without reserve and then to show how wickedness can run right through a great spirit without destroying it. In the end we are left with no illusions about Colette, but we are still heartily glad to have had the chance to know her.

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