Three beautiful French sisters entrust an American hiker with the mission of rescuing their mother high in the Alps.
But what if she doesn't want to be found?
Recently fired from his high-power finance job and dumped by his fiancée, Jim Olsen has come to the Swiss Alps to clear his head. At the charming Cabane des Audannes, he meets Clio, Thalia and Helene Castellane, who are on a quest of their own: their mother, Calliope, has fled to these mountains to escape her philandering politician husband's most recent scandal. As snow threatens to descend upon the Alps, the women have come to bring their mother home.
But the sisters are at the point of surrender; it is time for them to return to Paris. Buoyed by wine and inspired by their beauty, Jim impetuously volunteers to assume their search, but soon realizes that he is in over his head. The Alps are filled with beauty and danger, not the least of which is Calliope's desire to stay hidden. And all the while, Jim finds himself haunted by the memory of her daughters and conflicted in his desire for them.
The Runaway Wife is a story of adventure, survival, and romance—and of a man's discovery of a world outside his conventional life and a new vision of himself within it.
Listen to Elizabeth discuss The Runaway Wife on 1490 WGCH Radio (Connecticut)
An excerpt from The Runaway Wife
"Don't move," she said in a voice that was rich and deeply accented—a dancing, playful voice, warm with the last drops of sunlight.
Jim stood motionless. Kestrels chirped above him. The wind stirred the woman's hair, and wisps fell from her braid. The world was vibrant in the moment, heated by the last glimmer of the sun.
She drew the arrow back in one fluid motion and then released it. The arrow hit the target an inch off the center of the bull's-eye and vibrated there in its certainty.
Still the woman did not turn around.
"What took you so long?" she asked.
Jim looked behind him. Was she addressing someone else?
She reached behind her, her elbow pointing up in the air for a brief moment, and extracted a second arrow from the small leather pouch on her back.
"It took you longer than you expected," she said, threading the arrow into the bow and slowly drawing back. Her French accent was fused with a British one. Her voice resembled all the sisters' voices in his head. It was her: Calliope Castellane.
With surprising swiftness and in one move, she turned and pointed the arrow at him. The arrow's target was his heart. Had Calliope's solitary existence transformed her into a madwoman? A lock of light-brown hair fell over her eye.
"Yes," he said. He didn't move. She was more beautiful than in her photograph. Her cheekbones were more pronounced and higher, her nose was a straighter line—but it was her large, intense blue-green eyes that demanded attention.
She laughed, then twisted her body back in the direction of the target and released the arrow. In the dimming light, he could see that she'd missed the bull's-eye by only a fraction. As she retrieved her arrows, he noticed that the ribbon that held her braid was identical to the maroon velvet one that Thalia had given him from around her neck.
The Story Behind the Story of The Runaway Wife
By Elizabeth Birkelund
The Runaway Wife was inspired by a summer hiking trip in the Wildhorn, the highest summit of the Bernese Alps in western Switzerland. The expedition was crafted by a friend; the goal: to walk along the crests of the Alps, stopping along the way for overnights in "huttes," Spartan refuges with a single room in which 20-30 hikers bunk.
"There's no better place to disconnect from the frantic pace of our lives," urged a childhood pal of my husband's, who was plugging the trip. "In the nighttime," he continued, "when you cozy up in warming huts along the way, the nature of the great outdoors fades away and the beauty of human nature takes over. You'll remember what it feels like to be human! I promise!"
What our friend didn't know was that my husband's and my twenty-seven-year-old marriage was at a breaking point. More than a respite from the frenetic pace, I needed clarity, and I imagined that hiking along Alpine summits would provide perspective on our troubled relationship.
A few days in the soaring mountains, and we had disconnected from the Internet and the need for speed—there were no tempting texts; there was no Internet. My husband lasted only a few days; claiming boredom, he took the easy way down. I continued with our friend.
To my surprise, rather than dwelling on the desperate state of my marital affairs, I began to connect to something completely different. It began on a chilly, starry night at the Geltenhutte, a hut on the Geltenhorn pass, when a fellow hiker asked us if we had come upon the Hermitess.
"The what?" I asked.
"Hermitess," he repeated. "A female hermit."
He had heard about her from a mountaineer who had a fright on a dusky evening that summer. She was standing, slender and tall, white hair down to her waist, at the opening of a cave near the Iffigsee, one of the high Alpine lakes on these northern slopes. She did not speak when he greeted her, but stared at him with immense eyes, her face as ageless as a child's. The brief encounter had left him feeling lighter and indescribably joy-filled. In retrospect, he wished he had not been so quick to withdraw.
Days later, the mountaineer began to doubt the meeting. Was she an apparition, or more likely, an optical illusion that his person-starved brain fabricated on a mountain desert?
When he asked around, a few hikers confirmed that a female hermit once lived in a cave in the summit area of the Wildhorn and had somehow managed to survive alone through the typical impossibly frigid and difficult winter conditions. But no one had seen her for the last thirty years.
When we finally arrived at the Cabane des Audannes at the summit of the Wildhorn, exhausted and bedraggled, and I asked the manager of the cabin about the Hermitess, he rolled his big brown eyes and insisted the whole thing was bogus mountain folklore.
"No one," he said in his thick French accent, "can survive the winters up here. No." His jowls jiggled as he shook his head. "I don't believe a word of it. "
And yet my imagination had been set in motion. Something in me wanted this lone female hermit to exist, to survive the impossible winters, to play the role of the heroine of the Wildhorn. The following day, as we walked single file across a disheartening plateau of grey slabs of deep grey scree to the next hut an eight-hour hike away, I found myself turning over the possibilities in my head.
What if you were entirely alone, without human contact for a day, a month, a year, thirty years? What life would you create for yourself? Would the days be empty or full, wonderful or terrifying, liberating or imprisoning? What parts of you would come alive, what parts of you would you lose? Would you make friends with the sky, the mountain lakes, the Alpine ibex horn-butting in the distance? Would you lose your sanity? And what was your version of sanity anyway?
To resolve these questions, I did what I think most writers do: I created a character who would explore these questions and arrive at the truth. Her name was Calliope, after the ancient muse of eloquence. I placed her alone in the summertime Alps. Unlike the lonely Hermitess, she would have a few visitors—an awkward, teenage goatherd, who brings her bread and cheese and laughter, the old, serious Alpine farmer Valasian who supplies her firewood daily, and Jim, an innocent American assigned to rescue her from the Alpine winter. In her barn, she hosts a parliament of owls, daily company that fills her summer residence with throaty harmonies. She eats from an abundance of fresh vegetables from her garden. She practices archery, and hunts fish with her falcon.
Left to her own devices, Calliope has created an idyllic life for herself, that is, until (isn't there always an 'until?') she is forced by weather and her husband—enter her nemesis, Yves Castellane, in the form of a harassing helicopter—to return home.
During her Alpine escape, Calliope has the freedom to follow her inner callings. She is master of her life and circumstances, her food, her shelter, her friends. In her non-Alpine life, she is a chic denizen of Paris, the wife of an ambitious politician who demands that she spend her life fueling his political ambitions. In their marriage, she is an extension of her husband, his grandiosity, his ideas, and also his self-hatred. Once she has freed herself from the weight of his crushing ego, she resolves never to return.
And so, hiking along the crests of summer snow-dusted peaks and dipping my toes into frosty Alpine lakes, my plot thickened. Each step along the way left a footprint in The Runaway Wife.
At a turning point in the novel, Calliope and Jim must wait out a whiteout on their hike to safety. The whiteout was an apt metaphor for my life, as I felt stuck in a dangerous place with no horizon. What would the future look like for my four sons and me if I broke free from my husband? As in a whiteout, the feeling was at once claustrophobic and vertiginous, and I had to sit tight for a long time before I determined the right route.
My adventure in the Wildhorn inspired The Runaway Wife. But it was the adventure of writing the novel that offered me the ability to see from a distance that a whiteout was threatening not only my characters' existence but my own. Fortunately, I was able to opt for a different path from the one Calliope ultimately chooses. I can only hope to offer readers a similar happy ending as they undertake their own journeys into the sunny meadows and the craggy cliffs of The Runaway Wife.
Discussion Questions for Book Groups
- How would you describe Jim Olsen? What are the factors that have shaped his character?
- When Jim first meets the three sisters, what is it about them that intrigues him? Why do you think he volunteers to help them?
- At the Cabane des Audannes, Jim finds every corner of the place brimming with what, in his limited experience, he considers "a comforting and warm humanity." Where and when in your life have you experienced this feeling?
- Talk about the three sisters. How different are their perspectives on their mother and father? Siblings may have the same set of parents, but their experiences of their childhoods can be extremely different. Why do you think this is so?
- Which sister do you gravitate to and why? Who do you think is the most effective in solving the problem of finding their mother? Whose view of their father is most sympathetic to you? What ties them together as a family?
- Both Jim and Calliope are escaping from something. What are they escaping or leaving behind? Do you think getting away leads to good solutions? What has "time away" done for you in terms of making or rethinking decisions?
- The novel points out the difference of "Aloneness" and "Loneliness." How would you describe the difference? When Jim is alone in the Alps, what are his feelings? Exhilaration or fear, both or other? How do you feel when you are completely alone? Are you comfortable, anxious, relieved, impatient? What do you think of Calliope's aloneness? Could you live the way she does for a summer, for a week, for a day?
- Calliope seems to have set up an idyllic life in the Alps for herself. What is your idea of an idyllic life? Where are you? What are you spending your day doing? Who are you with?
- Calliope seems to be living a version of her "ideal self." Who is your Ideal Self? What qualities would you have?
- Speaking to Jim about her marriage, Calliope asks, "Can love exist without trust?" What do you think?
- What do you think of Jim and Calliope's relationship? How does it start and how does it end? Who learns what from whom, if anything?
- Jim and Calliope experience a whiteout during their difficult escape from the Alps. During a whiteout, visibility is severely reduced and the horizon disappears. In your life, have you lost your sense of direction to such a degree that you cannot see the horizon? If so, how did that feel, what did you do, and how did you find your way back? Whom did you rely on if anyone but yourself?
- Calliope insists on visiting a female hermit. What did you think of this visit? What part of Calliope's character is expressed in this chapter? What did Jim learn from this encounter?
- During the return from the Alps, Jim must make a decision. Ideally, we make the decision that comes, not from other's promptings, but from the part of ourselves that we hold true. Do you think Jim's decision reflects this? Do you make decisions based on the part of yourself that you hold true?
- Is there anything Jim could have done differently to change the outcome for Calliope in the end?
- Does Calliope make a decision in the Alps that she cannot make back in Paris? In the end, does she stick to that decision? Why or why not? What does she fear?
- Jim meets three sisters for the first time in the Alps, then Thalia, for a second time in Paris, and Helene, also for a second time in New York City. Is his perception different about them on the first and second meetings? What happens in the time we meet someone for the first and second times? Do you find you can "get" a person's character on first meeting?
- Do you think Jim changes after his hiking vacation in the Alps? If so, how? Has anyone else changed during or after the journey? Ambrose? Calliope? The sisters? What is it that makes some people change after experiences and others stay roughly the same?
- What is the role of the landscape of the Alps in the novel? How does it shape the characters and their lives? In what other books is landscape crucial to the characters and the plot?