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In the pink boudoir of Léa, a still lovely courtesan, Chéri, her handsome young lover, demands that she let him play with her valuable pearls. She discourages his mood, fearing that the removal of her pearls might cause him to notice that her neck is showing the wrinkles of age. Chéri curses his luncheon engagement with his mother. Léa gently and teasingly helps him in his erratic dressing. Although he becomes lazily aroused at her touch, she manages to send him away to his luncheon.

Alone, Léa dresses with efficient care, choosing a white-brimmed hat for her visit to Madame Peloux. She eats a good lunch before joining Chéri at his mother’s house. There she finds Madame Peloux loud-voiced, gossipy, and inquisitive. Also there are Marie-Laure, an elegant woman of forty years, and her quiet daughter Edmée, whose looks nearly equal her mother’s. They leave as soon as Léa arrives, and the degree to which mother and son then relax disgusts Léa. Despite Chéri’s careless manners, he still looks to her like a young god.

She remembers him as a very beautiful and lonely child who soon developed his mother’s miserliness and her keen business sense. In his late adolescence, Chéri had been taken away by Léa to Normandy to feed him well and also to remove him from his dissipated life in Paris. Her offer to do so had been accepted with a kiss that had inflamed them both.

In Normandy, they had become lovers. Chéri was devoted to Léa for her passion and solicitude, and she to him for his youth, ardor, and faunlike freedom. At that point, Léa would still have been willing to abandon him because of the inconvenience he caused her; he was, in succession, taciturn and demonstrative, tender and spiteful. After they returned to Paris, however, Chéri still wanted Léa, and he became her established lover. He had remained with her for six years.

When Chéri returns to Léa after the luncheon party, he tells her that he is to marry Edmée. Since Léa has always known a marriage would be eventually arranged for Chéri, she does not outwardly react to this news. Chéri declares that his wife will influence him little and that she already adores him. Wounded by Léa’s apparent lack of emotion, he declares that he would like her to hide herself in Normandy and grieve. He desperately wants to be her last lover.

In the few weeks before Chéri’s marriage, he and Léa are very happy, though at times she is appalled at his heartlessness toward his future bride and realizes that by pampering him she has maintained in him the immaturity of a child. When Chéri chatters about his honeymoon, Léa reminds him that she will not be there. Chéri turns white and gives her great happiness by announcing ambiguously that for him she will always be there.

While visiting Madame Peloux during the honeymoon, Léa is suddenly overwhelmed by an ill-defined grief. Feeling ill, she returns home and goes to bed. When she realizes that for the first time she is really suffering from the loss of a great love, she flees from Paris, staying away for a year.

Chéri and Edmée live with Madame Peloux at Neuilly until their own house is finished. Chéri is also miserable and questions his mother about Léa’s uninformative parting note. No one knows where she has gone. Sometimes he fights viciously with his young wife, who loves him and bores him. He becomes obsessed with plans for their house and gives many and contradictory orders for exotic decorations.

Edmée becomes so...

(This entire section contains 1141 words.)

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unhappy that at last she resorts to looking for love letters in Chéri’s desk. When she accuses him of loving only Léa, weeping unrestrainedly, Chéri is unmoved but interested; Léa had never cried. Edmée deeply offends Chéri when she suggests that their own lovemaking is not really love. Chéri explains that no man can tolerate such remarks. Their quarrels finally force Edmée to suggest a divorce. Chéri calmly rejects the suggestion because he knows that Edmée loves him and because divorce offers no real solution to his problem.

Chéri next goes to Léa’s house, but her servants still have no news of her. In deep despair, he dines away from home for the first time. He stays in Paris, living a miserable and silent life with a young man who has frequently lived on his money before. He recovers the strength to act when at last the lamps in Léa’s house are again lighted. Then, without seeing Léa, he buys jewels for his wife and returns home.

Léa does not wholly regret her exile, but she is distressed to discover how much the year had aged her. Only her eyes remain as lovely as before. Although a visit from Madame Peloux restores her spirit, she is hurt by the news she receives of Chéri, and she realizes that she is not free of her love for him. While out walking, she twice sees young men who she is convinced are Chéri. Realizing that she is not yet strong enough to meet him unexpectedly, she returns home. She changes her street clothes for a peach-colored robe and paces about her room while trying to face the fact that she is alone.

About midnight Chéri arrives, sullen and disheveled, and declares that he has returned to her. She quarrels with him for a time but at last is so completely disarmed by his pleas that she keeps him there. For the first time, that night, they declare to each other that they are in love.

In the morning, Léa, unknowingly watched by Chéri, makes wild plans for their departure together. She looks old to Chéri, and he feels exhausted. Unable to draw him into her plans, she bitterly denounces Edmée. He stops her by insisting that she is not being the fine and lovely woman he has always known. She tells him gently that their fate has been to love and then part. Although he knows how much he has hurt Léa, Chéri is unable to follow any course but return to his family. Léa begs him not to make Edmée miserable and tells Chéri how much she loves him. Having thus successfully sent him away, Léa catches her last sight of Chéri breathing in the air of the courtyard as if it were something that he could taste.