Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Enemies of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #3) by Sally Christie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #3
Pages: 416
Published by Atria Books on March 21st 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.
“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.
Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Review:

The Enemies of Versailles, and the entire series of the Mistresses of Versailles, beginning with The Sisters of Versailles and continuing with The Rivals of Versailles, is a fascinating blend of historical fiction and herstorical fiction, telling the story of the reign of Louis XV of France through the eyes of the women who shared his bed and/or his heart.

So instead of viewing this history through the lives of its movers and shakers, usually male, we see the king from the perspective of his mistresses and, in the case of this final book in the series, from the point of view of his oldest daughter, the unmarried and extremely upright (also uptight in modern terms) Adelaide.

It’s not a pretty picture, and it isn’t intended to be, particularly at this point late in the king’s life. It is to Louis XV that the famous phrase is attributed, “apres moi, le deluge”. And while he may not have known precisely what horrors the deluge of the French Revolution was destined to unleash, it is clear from this account that he was well aware that whatever followed him was going to be less rich, less glorious, less regal, and pretty much just less of everything.

It turned out he was right. From the perspective of the monarchy and the aristocracy, the Revolution indeed brought much less of everything, except blood. There was plenty of that. An outcome that Louis himself does not live to see, although the principal narrators of this story, his daughter Adelaide and his last mistress, the Duchesse du Barry, witness the revolution in all its horror.

In this book, and the trilogy as a whole, Louis appears as a self-indulgent and even indolent ruler, willing to let his advisors run the country while he dallies with his mistresses and escapes from the pomp and ceremony of court life as much as possible. And, of course, his advisors are more than happy to take the burdens of monarchy off of his hands, the better to further their own ambitions.

At the center of this book, and of the final years of Louis’ life, we see a man caught between two opposing forces. On the one side, his daughter Adelaide, ruthlessly virtuous, desiring above all else to save her father’s eternal soul by persuading him to give up his licentious ways. On his other side, the courtesan Jeanne Becu, Duchesse du Barry, encouraging the king to while away his hours in her company, giving her as many beautiful presents as possible and ignoring the world outside her boudoir.

Adelaide never stands a chance. Louis always prefers his mistress’ charms, whoever that mistress might be. But as we watch the court squabble over who should have precedence, and how best to capture the attention of the aging king, we know that we are watching the equivalent of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, or fiddling while Paris, substituting for Rome in the famous saying, burns.

Escape Rating B: This is a series about which I have had mixed feelings from the very beginning, and I leave the series with lots of them. But most of those mixed feelings are about the history portrayed, rather than the portrayal itself. In other words, this series made me think. Among other thoughts, making me glad that I am reading about this period rather than living in it.

The world portrayed in the series is fascinating, enthralling, rich, decadent and strange. There are two sayings that seem to apply equally: “The past is another country, they do things differently there” and, to paraphrase just a bit, “the rich are very, very different from you and me”.

One of the things that strikes me is the appalling waste. Not just the wretched excesses of the court, but also the waste of the brains and talent of the women in this series, and this era. As much as I would not want to have spent five minutes in her company, I found Adelaide and to a lesser extent her sisters, to be utterly pitiable. They all had brains, and probably talents of one sort or another. And absolutely no outlets for any of that except through moral rectitude to the point of priggishness, extreme protection of their privileges and status, and endless backbiting and jostling for position in a court and an era that simply saw them as less than nothing.

Then of course, there’s the wretched excess of the court itself. That so much time and effort was expended, and so much wealth wasted, on ceremony that was extended and elaborated somewhere past the nth degree fascinates and disgusts at the same time.

The Revolution was a bloodbath of epic proportions, and yet it is all too easy to see it looming on the horizon, at least from our viewpoint, and wonder why no one at the time seriously saw it coming. But the same is true, to a much less bloody extent, in the run up to the American Revolution. Hindsight, as always, is 20/20.

About the books and the series. Looking back, there is one thing about each of the books that made the first parts a bit difficult to get over. In each book, the story of the mistress or mistresses begins with their childhood. And while the child certainly makes the woman, that period of each of their lives just wasn’t as compelling, or even as interesting, as what happens to each of them as they find themselves, or are thrust in the case of duBarry, into the king’s orbit. One reason I found Adelaide sympathetic in this particular book was that by the time this story begins, she is an adult, even if her understanding is somewhat lacking in particulars because of her very peculiar sheltered life.

In some ways, both Adelaide and du Barry remain infantilized by their circumstances until the Revolution robs everyone of any possible pretensions. They had to either grow up or die. That one did and one did not provides a last and final contrast in the remarkable circumstances of their lives.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I’m giving away a copy of The Enemies of Versailles to one lucky US or Canadian commenter.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie

Review: The Rivals of Versailles by Sally ChristieThe Rivals of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy, #2) by Sally Christie
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #2
Pages: 448
Published by Atria Books on April 5th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

And you thought sisters were a thing to fear. In this compelling follow-up to Sally Christie's clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles.
I write this before her blood is even cold. She is dead, suddenly, from a high fever. The King is inconsolable, but the way is now clear.
The way is now clear.
The year is 1745. Marie-Anne, the youngest of the infamous Nesle sisters and King Louis XV's most beloved mistress, is gone, making room for the next Royal Favorite.
Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a stunningly beautiful girl from the middle classes. Fifteen years prior, a fortune teller had mapped out young Jeanne's destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King's arms.
All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals - including a lustful lady-in-waiting; a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters - she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.
Enigmatic beauty, social climber, actress, trendsetter, patron of the arts, spendthrift, whoremonger, friend, lover, foe. History books may say many things about the famous Marquise de Pompadour, but one thing is clear: for almost twenty years, she ruled France and the King's heart.
Told in Christie's witty and modern style, this second book in the Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the world of eighteenth century Versailles in all its pride, pestilence and glory.

My Review:

Age and treachery beat youth and skill, set amid the long, twilight fall of France into the abyss of the Revolution.

Alternate possibility, there’s nothing new under the sun. Especially not Desperate Wives of Wherever and the Kardashians. And isn’t that a frightening thought?

Louis XV by Rigaud (1730)
Louis XV by Rigaud (1730)

The Rivals of Versailles is the second book in Sally Christie’s Mistresses of Versailles series. All of those titular mistresses were the mistresses, official or otherwise, of Louis XV of France. His predecessor Louis XIV was called “The Sun King” because the power of France was at its height during his rule. His great-grandson, Louis XV squandered all of the goodwill generated by his illustrious fore-bearer, and bequeathed a broke and humbled France to his grandson, Louis XVI. Who in his turn lost his throne and then his head in the Revolution.

But the story in The Rivals of Versailles follows not Louis, but the career of his most famous mistress, Madame de Pompadour. And what a career it was!

During her nearly 20 year reign as Louis’ official mistress, Jeanne Antoinette Poisson served as both Louis’ chief comforter and more importantly, seemingly his chief minister, even after she no longer filled what would otherwise seem to be the most important function of a mistress – she stopped sharing his bed. Instead, she shared his mind, or possibly served as the best part of it, and shared what heart he had left.

This is not a pretty story. Jeanne starts out as a young girl who is told she is destined to catch the eye of the king. Her family grooms her assiduously for the position, and when his favorite mistress, Marie-Anne de Mailly dies, Jeanne’s backers put her in the way of the grieving king.

(The story of Louis’ affairs with Marie-Anne de Mailly and nearly all of her five sisters is told in The Sisters of Versailles, but it is not necessary to read that book to get into this one, the stories are very different)

sisters of versailles by sally christieUnlike The Sisters of Versailles, where the five de Mailly sisters squabble over the king and share his bed in turns, The Rivals of Versailles follows de Pompadour and her rivals through the course of her life at court. Even when some younger woman thinks she has a chance to oust de Pompadour, all of their efforts, and the efforts of the various parties who back them, come to naught.

Even as the king sinks further into depravity in his over-indulged middle-age, it is always Madame de Pompadour that he turns to for comfort and counsel. She is the person that he rails to about the demands of Parlement and she is the one he consults on all decisions. It is Madame de Pompadour who fosters the French rapprochement with their old enemies, the Austrians, and it is de Pompadour who helps to determine the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which led to France’s involvement in what is known to American history as the French and Indian War, and the loss of all of France’s North American colonies.

Her reach was long, her influence was wide. She was one of the most powerful women of Europe in the 18th century. The Rivals of Versailles is her story.

Escape Rating B: Although the period and setting are just as over-indulgent as The Sisters of Versailles, I found The Rivals of Versailles to be a more accessible book. In Sisters, while survivor Hortense begins and ends the story, the narration moves around among all the de Mailly sisters, and none of them make likeable protagonists.

Madame de Pompadour, portrait by François Boucher
Madame de Pompadour, portrait by François Boucher

In The Rivals of Versailles, Madame de Pompadour is the point of view character for most of the story. And even when she is not directly relating the action, she is still a very strong presence. Even the women who are trying to supplant her are forced to reckon with her power over the king.

One thing drove this reader just a bit nuts. The story begins with Jeanne as a young girl, and is from her childish and naive perspective. When she comes to court, we see her mature and harden into the woman who becomes Madame de Pompadour, and it’s a hard and frequently painful journey.

As political factions find young women to supplant her, we see their stories from their perspectives, and they are, to a person, very young, very naive and very selfish. Also in at least one case, uneducated and unintelligent into the bargain. Sometimes it is difficult to read from inside their heads, because there’s just no there, there.

However, one aspect of this progression is sad but also telling. As the king gets older, the women who are procured for him get younger and younger, also stupider and stupider. And the king is constantly indulged while the Revolution seems to literally brew around him. As the story continues, the storm to come feels more and more inevitable.

But what makes this book work better than Sisters is the voice of de Pompadour. She does her best to keep her king happy. And his happiness means that she takes as much of the burden of ruling as she can from behind the throne. She seems to truly love him, and to be truly doing her best to keep him happy, even as the deeds she must commit or at least condone get darker and darker.

This is the sad story of a woman who only wanted to be loved, but discovered that the accumulation power was addicting, and was the only way that she could survive.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie + Giveaway

Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie + GiveawayThe Sisters of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy #1) by Sally Christie
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction
Series: Mistresses of Versailles #1
Pages: 432
Published by Atria Books on September 1st 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France's most "well-beloved" monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.
Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.
Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.
Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot - and women - forward. The King's scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie's stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

My Review:

This is going to seem like a strange place to start this review, but I’m going to quote the great science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein, who was, in turn, paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane, a geneticist and evolutionary biologist. The same quote is also attributed to Arthur Stanley Eddington, an astronomer.

“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

There’s a truism in there. Fiction has to be believable. The story has to hang together, the characters and the plot have to make sense to the reader. History, no matter how strange or bizarre, merely has to be true.

As historical fiction, the story in The Sisters of Versailles therefore does not have to be believable, it just has to match the historical record. And while we can’t know whether the thoughts and feelings ascribed to the Mailly-Nesle sisters in the story reflect their personalities, we can learn that the events portrayed in the book really did happen.

In 18th century France, Louis XV inherited the throne from his great-grandfather, Louis XIV, known to history as the Sun King. When Louis XV became king, he was all of 2 years old, and his regency council ruled, not just until he came of age, but at least one of them stayed pretty much in charge until his own death.when Louis was in his 30s.

Seeming to be rather more self-indulgent than interested in ruling, Louis seems to have let his ministers do everything for him, including choose his first mistress. And that is where our story begins.

The first mistress of Louix XV was Louise-Julie de Mailly-Nesle. She was the oldest of the five Mailly-Nesle sisters, and the story in The Sisters of Versailles is the story of Louise and her younger sisters, Pauline, Diane, Hortense and Marie-Anne, all of whom except Hortense took their turns as the King’s official mistress.

Interestingly, it is Hortense, the only one who skipped bedding the King, who tells the story.

If this were fiction, we wouldn’t believe it. We’d believe he had mistresses, but not that he chose one sister after another. And it seems, at least according to the story, that they were not by any means alike. Louise was naive to the very end. Diane was fun-loving, and both Pauline and Marie-Anne were calculating, using the position of maitresse-en-titre (official mistress) to achieve power. They were the women behind the throne and they ruled through Louis as effectively as any of his official ministers did.

The way that the sisters score off against each other and supplant each other reads like an 18th century version of Real Housewives or the Kardashians, but set against a backdrop that is even more opulent, and among people who are even more self-absorbed, than any reality TV series.

And amid this portrait of absolutely wretched excess, the reader hears the desperation of the common French people. We see that these events are inexorably leading to the French Revolution, while the nobility plays and the people starve.

Escape Rating B-: If this were purely fiction, no one would believe this story. As history, it does make the reader gasp a bit. Four sisters? Really? And yet it did happen.

The author switches between the points of view of the women, and also adds in letters between the sisters to convey the way that reality often differed from written communication. Everyone always wrote that they were happy, no matter how miserable they were. Also everyone always writes that they are faithful to their husbands, when seemingly no one except Hortense actually was.

Whether these letters are real or fabrications is not stated, but while they fit the characters, they are most likely inventions of the author to move the story along. And in context, that works just fine.

What doesn’t quite work is the constant switching between perspectives. The viewpoint rotates in a whirlwind between the sisters, although the perspective of whoever is the King’s mistress at the time is in the ascendant. But the revolving points of view make the story fragment. I would have preferred it if we had stayed with Hortense’ viewpoint throughout – she is the survivor and seems to be the least self-serving, at least as regards to their collective relationship with the king.

While the story of the Mailly-Nesle sisters, their King, and the court that they ruled is fascinating, the sisters themselves are not a likable bunch, with the possible exception of Diane. Louise feels like a bit of an idiot, and Pauline and Marie-Anne both seem willing to trample over anyone and everyone, obviously including their own sisters, in order to get their own way. Pauline also seems to have had the makings of a sociopath, at least according to the stories the other sisters tell about their mutual childhood.

This is a portrait of a world that is not merely gone, but of a glittering world that brought about its own destruction, as seen through the eyes of women who had no path to power except through the men that they ruled and squabbled over.

And as a portrait of toxic sisterhood, it made me very glad to be an only child.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

I am giving away a copy of The Sisters of Versailles to one lucky U.S. or Canadian commenter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.