Acknowledging all of her marriages, her name was Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette Gauthier-Villars de Jouvenel Goudeket. The world knew her simply as Colette, the surname of her father, who, though aspiring to be a writer, exerted less influence on her than any of the other men whose names she took. Most influential of all was her Christian namesake, her mother, Sido, and through much of Colette's voluminous autobiographical writing it is that figure who casts the longest, most inexorable shadow. One of the many triumphs of Judith Thurman's sumptuous new biography is her essential portrait of maman Colette, who believed in her daughter's talents and her instincts but never gave up trying to subdue her. That emotional tug of war affected Colette permanently. In her early relationships with men, Colette sought domination and mastery. Later, after a five-year lesbian relationship and a second marriage, she turned the tables. She didn't become a mother herself until age 40, and then she purposefully withheld affection from her only child, a daughter. Only when she married the third time, at 62, did she seem to find balance in a romantic alliance. The difficulty of achieving such equilibrium in love affairs was, of course, her great narrative theme. Thurman gives us all the love affairs (including one with her stepson, who was 16 to her 47) and all the novels, the fleeting sweetness and the lingering tristesse. No paradoxes or ambivalences escape her. As a writer, Colette was a psychological realist with an occasional sentimental streak.

Admired by writers as diverse as Cocteau and Mauriac, Colette is arguably the finest French writer of her sex in the 20th century. Her first novel appeared under her first husband's pseudonym in 1900, and she was still writing shortly before her death, at age 81, in 1954.

Besides the signature novels Cheri, The Vagabond, Gigi she wrote about almost everything except politics and religion, which bored her. Though intensely independent, especially when it came to money, she had no real interest in feminism. As Thurman says, There was not an idea that could carry Colette away, or a sensation that couldn't. More than anything, she wanted to be her own creation. A village girl from Burgundy who came to galvanize tout Paris, she made her life her writing, which is never entirely free of its central character: Colette. Thurman has put all her vitality back on the page, and vitality is what Colette is all about.

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