Still, that could have been the end of the affair. Liebreich might have dried her tears, regained her rhythm and only occasionally thought of the woman whose story had shaken her. Instead, she set out to find her. “I wanted to know how Maurice had died; I wanted to know what his mother was like; I wanted to know whether I could track the origin of an unsigned letter in a bottle. I wanted the writer to know that the bottle had been found on an English shore and that I had read her letter. I wanted to reassure myself that she was all right.” She explains in the book she subsequently wrote about the search.
“Sending a letter in a bottle invites a stranger to pick it up and read it,” Liebreich told herself. “I think the unknown mother wanted the tale of her love for her son, the 8)knowledge of his death and her despair, to be known.” The only things she knew for sure, however, were Maurice's first name and the age at which he died. And she soon discovered that much of this knowledge was useless, with France recording deaths not in one central register but in 36,000 local ones. Over the next few years, Liebreich consulted newspapers, bottle-makers, sailors, psychologists, private detectives, even 9)clairvoyants and 10)tarot readers. “The letter would not leave me in peace,” Liebreich writes. “But each time I considered giving up I thought I would make one more effort—one more email, one more phone call, one more visit to the library. The answer might be round the next corner.”
It took her six months to realise that perhaps Maurice hadn't drowned at all, and the letter's “water”, “harbour”, “vessel” and so on were nothing but metaphors. It never occurred to her that his death “at the dawn of summer” might have referred to his age rather than the calendar. After three years, Liebreich decided enough was enough. If she couldn't find Maurice's mother, she could at least write about the search. “If, somewhere, the letter-writer is alive,” her book concludes, “then perhaps this book can serve as a 11)clumsy ‘letter-in-a-bottle' reply…I wonder if she will receive my message.”
She did. In 2009, three years after The Letter in the Bottle came out in Britain, the nameless “she” got in touch to say she felt violated. As she put it, it was as though her story, her suffering, her very intimate being no longer belonged to her. By then, the book had been published in French, to huge media coverage. “In Britain the story was seen as a failed quest,” Liebreich recalls. “In France it was an unsolvedmystery.” Years before, she had struggled to interest the media; now she was worried that Maurice's mother would be 12)outed by a friend or neighbour. Instead, the mother contacted Liebreich via the psychologist Olivier Roussela. She might be willing to talk to Liebreich directly, but she needed time.