Thursday, September 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

Disclaimer: I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Fans of Phillipa Gregory, or fans of romantic historical fiction who’ve had just a bit too much of the Tudors, here’s a novel tailor-made for immersing yourself in early eighteenth century France, the court of Louis XV. Before Madame de Pompadour, King Louis had a succession of mistresses, four of whom were sisters. We meet them all in The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie.

The Nesle girls: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne were relatively impoverished aristocrats whose prospects were dim until the death of their (infamous) mother. Louise inherited her position as a lady-in-waiting to the queen. At first shy, gauche, and determined to remain virtuous, Louise finds her footing at court when she is chosen to be mistress of the young king. King Louis wants to be a faithful husband, but he’s bored with his wife and very ready to be led astray. He and Louise begin a discreet liaison. All goes well until the secret gets out. Once sister number two learns of Louise’s position, and how little she is taking advantage of it, the scheming, ambitious Pauline decides she will come to court, usurp her sister’s role, and show her how it’s done. Being a king’s mistress should be a position of power. Never mind how many enemies are made. After the ambitious Pauline, come the complacent and somewhat goofy Diane along with the even more power-hungry and cruel Marie-Anne. (Only the beautiful, virtuous Hortense refuses to play.)

The novel is told from multiple first person viewpoints so that each of the sisters can tell her own story. Interspersed are artfully deceptive letters between the sisters that may or may not have deceived anyone.

Christie succeeds in creating distinctive, interesting women, each with her own voice, goals, and heartaches. Each has her own feeling about the king and reason for taking on the role of mistress. The trajectories of the relationships, and the relationships among the sisters, are well charted. Life at court, its vanities, gossip, fashions, and political maneuvering are also well portrayed. The historical context is given short shrift: what is going on in the bedroom is much more important than what is going on in the world beyond the walls. Occasionally, someone makes mention of the unpleasantness of the peasants. Or there is acknowledgment that King Louis doesn’t pay much attention to the duties of the realm, leaving the governing to his ministers. He does have to spend part of his days meeting ambassadors and signing papers, but there is no substantive description of troubles affecting France.

Nevertheless, the book is chock-ful of driven characters, motivated by love, lust, jealousy, greed for power, even gluttony. The novel pulls you irresistibly along on the journey with these sisters in this remarkable tale.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to make a note of this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts