Saturday, August 16, 2008

More France in Fiction

It's been a while since I've made a 'good books' themed post, but I sure have been reading. Here are three recent reads worth sharing, all French-themed historicals:

*Joanne Harris, Holy Fools: I made it my business to read most of Harris' books this summer, when the only one I'd read until this year was Chocolat. I'm such a fan of her use of imagery and language -- I wasn't at all surprised to learn from her website that she has a background in both music and linguistics. Her prose has such rhythm. Holy Fools is set in 1605, on an island off the Brittany coast (her modern-set Coastliners is also set on a Breton island and shares some interesting themes with Holy Fools) at a remote convent. One of the nuns, Soeur Auguste aka Juliette, has a secret past: she was a performer in a traveling circus, and came to the convent with her daughter to escape that past. But her past finds her when her former fellow performer and nemesis, a devious character named LeMerle, appears at the convent in the guise of a priest. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as both LeMerle and Juliette work from behind their disguises...LeMerle to create mayhem in the convent, Juliette to preserve the way of life there. A splendid read that kept me turning the pages! Fans of Harris' other books will see interesting connections, namely in the mother/daughter theme (cf. Chocolate and Girl with No Shadow), the theme of magic (ditto), and the theme of islands (cf Coastliners).

*Sandra Gulland, Mistress of the Sun: Another new-to-me author from this summer, and now I want to read the Josephine B. trilogy. Mistress of the Sun is set later in the 17th c than Holy Fools, when king Louis XIV is a young man. The heroine is Louise de la Vallière--known as Petite in the book, which erases the clumsiness of a hero named Louis and a heroine named Louise!--and the novel follows her from her childhood through her longtime life as the king's mistress. But it's not a typical "king's mistress" story. The character of Petite is endearing, and as for Louis...well, I'll leave that for readers to decide. Sandra Gulland uses imagery beautifully here -- I particularly liked the opening chapters with the horse Diablo and how those themes resonated through the rest of the book. Another very good read that kept me up late.

*Elizabeth Robards, With Violets: This book I got as an ARC from my editor at Avon--it will be appearing as an Avon-A paperback this fall. It was actually published as a hardcover by Five Star back in 2005, but I admit I had not heard of it until my editor told me about it. This one is set in 19th century France, and the narrator is the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot. The novel centers on the period in Morisot's life from when she met Edouard Manet (one of my favorite artists) until she married, and imagines the relationship between Morisot and Manet. In 'real life' we do not know the 'truth' of their relationship, because they and their families successfully kept details secret. Naturally art historians speculate all over the place based on what we do know, and Robards is able to have fun speculating too. Based on surviving letters and other source material, the 'real life' Berthe Morisot was a rather brooding person, given to bouts of depression and self-doubt about her art and about her life. Robards tries to convey that while maintaining a romantic tone to the story. She uses a writing style that is impressionistic in itself and feels a bit like Morisot's painting style. In the author's note, Robards explains she was inspired to write the book by a trip to the Musée Marmottan in Paris, one of my favorite places to visit in the city.

I have a whole stack of other things to read, but alas, summer is ending and that means back-to-school on the 25th and less time for fun reading. (On the bright side, it also means back-to-paychecks!) I've got my eye on a number of things coming out this fall, including Elizabeth Peters' The Laughter of Dead Kings, Claude Izner's Murder on the Eiffel Tower, and Barbara Cleverly's Bright Hair About the Bone (the second in her new Laetitia Talbot archaeological mystery series). Stay tuned!

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