Summary: The Knowledge of Water
(My agent is working on Things with the books and asked for summaries. It occurred to me that, if a person were to have read The Knowledge of Water some time ago and didn't have the time to read it again before Crimes and Survivors, a summary would be a handy thing to have.
(So this has SPOILERS. Big ones. All the spoilers.
(You have been warned.)
Spoilers are approaching in the distance.
Here they come.
Paris, winter of 1909-10. Fresh from her studies in New York, Perdita is now at the Paris Conservatoire. The Conservatoire is prejudiced against female pianists and the French hate American musicians. Her ally is her old friend, Alexander von Reisden.
Their relationship is delicate. He offered her marriage on the train to New York, three and a half years ago. She accepted. Then both of them realized she wanted to study at the New York Institute. He’s joined a laboratory in Paris.
Now she’s in Paris too.
But is she staying? She is giving two concerts in January. After that, she’ll have Paris reviews and can go back to America.
On weekends she practices at a house in Courbevoie, a Paris suburb. He often joins her there, but they’re not lovers. He won’t commit to someone he can't keep.
Apart from his chemistry work, Reisden has taken on a company, Jouvet Medical Analyses. Jouvet specializes in diagnosing madmen. It pays, but it's taking most of his resources and the building needs huge repairs. He’s getting a bank loan. Reisden’s cousin Dotty tells him to marry a rich woman so he can afford his company. Dotty intends to help Perdita so Perdita will go back to America and leave Reisden free.
Meanwhile in Boston, Gilbert Knight worries that Perdita and Reisden won't stay together. He sends an unwilling Roy Daugherty to Paris to scout out the situation.
A murderer has killed an old raddled beggarwoman, the “Mona Lisa.” “Her Artist” writes Reisden, asking Reisden to give her an elaborate funeral. Reisden sets a trap to catch him.
At Courbevoie, Perdita lives near the widow of the Impressionist painter Claude Mallais. Madame Suzanne and her brother make friends with her—but only after they discover she’s blind.
Reisden and Perdita learn Roy Daugherty is coming to Paris; he can't visit her any more. Their coming separation drives them into each other’s arms and they become lovers.
It’s been raining for weeks and the Seine is much higher than usual. In the damp salon of Esther Cohen, an American, we meet Milly Xico, a French journalist. Milly used to write the soft-core adventures of “La Midinette,” a young French girl. Her ex-husband Henry sold the copyright of Milly’s books and gave her nothing. Milly wants revenge. The poet Georges Vittal announces he will throw 28 copies of the Mona Lisa into the Seine if it floods. Milly decides to spread a rumor that George will steal the actual Mona Lisa and Henry is helping him.
Looking for unwitting participants in her plot, she decides on Reisden. To get to Reisden, she makes friends with his little American girlfriend, Perdita.
The Salon d’hiver is sponsoring a big Mallais retrospective exhibit. Dotty wants to lend her own spectacular Mallais painting, but an art expert tells her it may be a forgery.
Roy Daugherty arrives and catches Reisden and Perdita at Courbevoie. Daugherty demands Reisden do the right thing and marry Perdita. That’s not what he wants, Reisden says (lying, somewhat), and not what she does (he knows, unfortunately). Rather than marry Perdita, he gives her up.
Daugherty intends to make sure they get married. He offers to investigate the Mallais painting, giving him an excuse to stay in Paris.
The most likely source of the forgeries is the family. Suzanne Mallais was a painter before she married. Her grandson, Jean-Jacques, paints copies of the Mona Lisa.
Reisden has been trying to catch Her Artist, the beggar's murderer. His trap fails. Her Artist (Leonard, a museum guard at the Louvre) becomes angry at him; Leonard still wants Reisden to arrange for his victim's funeral.
Reisden goes on a disastrous date and only wants Perdita, which makes him angry. He and Perdita meet by accident, fall into each other's arms, and become lovers again.
They discover she's pregnant. They both know they’re not what each other wants, but the alternative is abortion and neither of them can hurt a child. She says she will marry him and give up all thought of a musical career. He doesn’t believe her, but wants to believe, the way she wants to believe herself saying it.
The barometric pressure has gone very low; it’s raining so hard the atmosphere seems stifling.
Leonard finds out that Perdita is Reisden’s fiancée and decides to threaten Reisden through Perdita.
At the Salon d’hiver, Reisden sees another Mallais painting, Spruce and Shadow, a stunner. A detail in the painting dates it to after Mallais’s death. But is Mallais dead? He may have faked his death; he may be still alive and painting. Hoping to find proof, Reisden and friends break into the Mallais house. But they find that, though Mallais is alive, Madame has become his assistant, his hands. She is forging his work.
Mme Mallais confesses to Perdita she was once a painter. How much she loved it, she says, but she knew a woman could never be a painter. “What a light a woman artist like you would have been to me, when I was young.” The two women plead with each other not to give up their art. Perdita realizes how unreconciled she is to her own fate.
The day of Perdita's first concert. The Seine has risen by inches. The North-South Métro stations are flooded. The Left Bank main sewer is backing up into its own side branches, one of which runs almost under Jouvet. It breaks and the street near Jouvet collapses. Reisden has to get his bank loan before they become unaffordably more expensive. He gets it but misses Perdita’s concert.
Almost nobody comes. Not until after she’s played for only ten people does she realize that the Métro is closed—and Dotty, who knew, didn’t tell her. Milly gets weepy and mourns Perdita’s dead career and her own, then teases Leonard, who’s come to the concert. “He thinks it’s his right to follow us. I hate men.” Leonard finds out where Perdita lives.
In spite of all the critics who didn’t make Perdita’s opening, she gets a wonderful review in the Figaro. Milly wrote the review. She visits Reisden. In return for reviews, she wants Reisden to tell Henry not to steal the Mona Lisa. Just phone, tell him, hang up. Milly thinks this is adorable; Henry doesn't even know Reisden, he'll be terrified.
Reisden discovers among Perdita's mail a threatening letter from “Her Artist” and takes it to the police. Leonard ambushes him and forces him to go to the Morgue to rescue the Mona Lisa’s body. On the bridge leading to the Morgue they get into a fight. Leonard, about to be captured, jumps into the Seine.
Perdita realizes she cannot give up music. She spends the evening before their wedding with Reisden, but can’t tell him what she thinks.
The water begins to pour into the Orsay railroad station. Just after they leave for the wedding, water explodes outward from the station and destroys part of the Jouvet building. It’s very unlikely the company will survive.
Reisden and Perdita, now married, go to Courbevoie to confront Madame Mallais. Dotty joins them to prove her painting is a genuine Mallais. At Courbevoie, just before the quai walls break and flood the house, Daugherty and Reisden rescue the paintings and the Mallaises.
Dotty confronts Madame. Madame has never painted for her husband or with him, has she? Perdita reminds Mme Mallais that it’s important for a woman artist to know there are other women artists. No matter how unknown, no matter how illegal. Mme Mallais moans and throws her apron over her head. She has painted for him. Perdita tells Reisden she can’t give up her music and Madame Suzanne can't stop painting.
Dotty demands a “genuine Mallais” instead of one Madame painted. But she can't find one, and the Mallaises confess their real forgery. They have never forged a painting. But for all Mallais’s career, they have been forging an artist. Mallais, the dominant paradigm with a white beard, was the public face of their art. But the artist has always been Madame.
Reisden and Perdita commit to a difficult marriage, trying to save both Jouvet and her art. Madame will continue to paint. Leonard reappears and gives Milly what may be the real Mona Lisa. As the flood crests, Milly gets her revenge and begins to write a new, slyly feminist book.