The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti is the story of Lily Crisp, a widow who has retreated to her familyís home in France (inherited from her mother-in-law) to write about and reflect upon her life. Madame Olivetti is what she has nicknamed her trusty typewriter, lacking confidence in her shiny new laptop to do the arduous job of chronicling the events that have brought her to this point. Yves, whom Lily has hired to repair the roof, also plays a larger role in Lilyís day-to-day life as he becomes more than just the man who fixes the house.
More than anything else, The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti is about reflection, about going through the events of Lilyís life and learning more about her through her past. We learn about her first love, her now-deceased husband Paul, and Victor, a mysterious figure who casts a shadow over Lily even now, years later. Through these contemplations, the reader understands more of who Lily is and why she has retreated to France after living a full life. She has to face her past in order to have even a semblance of a happy future.
Vanderbilt writes the story at a languorous, even ponderous pace; there is no hurry within the novel. At the beginning, this makes it difficult to get into because there doesnít seem to be anything propelling the story forward. Eventually, though as the reader becomes more and more invested in Lilyís story, the pace seems to pick up.
There are no big bangs here, no explosions (either figuratively or literally). Instead, the book is quietly contemplative. Lily spends the entire novel reflecting on her life, only emerging from her reverie toward the end of the story. As such, this is a great novel for a slow, rainy afternoon rather than a bustling airport. Itís also best read straight through with few interruptions; in this way, the reader gains a fuller appreciation for the richness of Lilyís life.
Anyone who enjoys womenís fiction and/or quiet, contemplative reads will most likely enjoy The Secret Papers of Madame Olivetti. Its pace and content will appeal more to older readers as they too look back on their own lives with Lily. Itís an incredibly satisfying novel that wonít leave you disappointed.