Review – Madame Bovary

Okay, to be clear, this book was not at all what I thought it would be. I was, no lie, expecting torrid sex scenes. Why? I have no idea. I just was. Funny thing is, I don’t read anything even approaching erotica so I’m not sure where this thought came from. Obviously, something was lost in translation for me.

Charles Bovary is a less than ambitious man but he’s a good man. A doctor by trade, he’s happy practicing in a quiet French hamlet. After he starts his medical practice, his mother finds him a wife; an older and rather unhappy woman who dies early on in their marriage leaving Charles the opportunity to find love. He believes he may have found it in a woman named Emma who he met while setting her father’s broken leg. Emma has dreams, the first of which is to get away from her father’s home, so when Charles asks, she agrees to marry him. Married life is agony for her. She has a pleasant home, a husband who cares for her immensely — almost to the point of smothering her — and she has few tangible complaints. What she wants is romance though. After attending a ball, it’s all she can think about and her boring life holds no interest for her. Charles decides that Emma needs a change of scenery and moves the family (a child will soon be born to the couple) to Yonville. Emma soon finds herself entranced by a law student, Léon Dupuis, who seems to return her affection. Appalled by her own thoughts, she refuses to act and Léon soon leaves to finish his degree.

However, when Emma meets Rodolphe Boulanger, all thoughts of propriety go out the window and she gives in to his advances and starts the affair. She wants to run away, but Rodolphe, who has had several mistresses, decides that she is too clingy and breaks off the affair on the morning they’re to leave town together. Shattered by the end of the affair, Emma falls into a deep depression and sickness. When she finally recovers, Charles again tries to re-interest her in life this time believing the theatre will be the answer. It’s here that she once more meets Léon and begins her second affair. Lie after lie build up as do her debts. Emma is incapable of handling the lies or the debts and begins begging others for help, which doesn’t arrive. In a final dramatic act, she deals the only way she can.

At first, I felt sorry for Charles. He was boring but loving. He wasn’t ambitious at all and was happy with his life. He had a beautiful wife and child and a medical practice that provided the necessities of life. But, again, he was boring. Then he tried to pin everything wrong with his wife on a nervous condition which annoyed me and any sympathy I may have had for the clueless husband vanished. Emma on the other hand, doesn’t exactly deserve any praise. She wants everything, expensive things, is constantly bored, obsessive, and refuses to see any good in her life. She’s always looking for the next best thing. And it must be said, she’s a horrid excuse for a mother. Emma is interesting though and the reason to keep reading because every other character in this book is flat. Toward the end though, when the proverbial dirty laundry is aired, everyone is at fault in some way or another and it’s hard to have any sympathy for any of the characters.

My book had two additional sections at the end about the book itself, trials, bannings, etc. I didn’t read them. I think I wanted to look back on the book from my own perspective and not the perspective of a scandalous 19th Century trial discussing the need for a stricter moral code. Also, I think it would have made me upset and I enjoyed this book and didn’t want it to be marred.

So, back to my first paragraph — the sex. It’s there but it’s off screen. There’s kissing, there’s heavy petting, but shall we say, not what I was expecting considering the ruckus this book caused. Then again, that was back in the day. I don’t want to get into a discussion of morals, really, I’m the last person, but it’s an interesting part of this story and while I never felt lectured to, obviously, Emma is a lesson. But her character is more than simply a woman having an affair, she’s a woman unhinged but somewhat deserving of some understanding, even if it’s just to understand her depression better.

Madame Bovary

By Gustave Flaubert

Penguin Putman

3.75 stars

 

Review – The House I Loved

There are books where the beginning hints at the ending. The House I Loved is one such book but knowing how this one will end is what makes it so special. It builds very slowly and before you know it, you’ve been picked up and carried to the end.

A Parisian widow in mourning for many years, Rose Bazelet still maintains a rather full life on the rue Childebert in the house left to her by her husband. She has her friends and her routines but when the Emperor, Napoleon III, decides to bring Paris into the modern age by destroying what’s considering quaint by her neighborhood’s standards and replacing it with modern and better functioning buildings and facilities, her world comes crashing down. Rose does not want her Paris, the one where memories of her deceased husband and son reside, to be torn down and rebuilt. She takes a stand and makes the decision to fight for her home, her life, and her street. Rose tells everyone she knows that she will not be leaving her family home and nothing, not money or destruction, will make her leave the house she feels she must protect at all costs for the husband she dearly misses.

Hiding in the basement of her home, with frequent visits from Gilbert, a homeless man who has taken to protecting and helping Rose, she writes to her husband. In long letters, and short, she tells him about her fight and how the man at the office treated her as if her home and life meant nothing — and indeed it meant nothing to him all. She reveals long held secrets to him, secrets she has never told another living person. Rose writes about her neighbors that have brought her joy over the years and have kept her company after his death. As the day of destruction nears, her letters become more heart wrenching, sad, and poignant.

I’m the type of person that will read the last page of a book before I start. I love spoilers just that much. The House I Loved was the first book in a very long time where that didn’t happen. I had a feeling I knew how this one was going to end and I don’t say this as a way to ruin this book for anyone. The beauty is really in the letters and memories Rose is telling and reliving for her husband. Some of the memories were lovely — for instance, when she begins her love of reading and how she tells her husband that she now finally understands how he could sit for hours absorbed in a book. A reader would love that! Others are awful, sad memories that only impending change would cause her to reveal.

I don’t want you to think this book is only sad, it is in a way, but it’s also very heartwarming and the picture that de Rosnay paints of this little street in Paris in the 1860s is very vibrant. The parks, the buildings, and the people are alive in Rose’s letters. And while Rose’s world is very small, it feels much grander thanks to the words she writes to her beloved husband. Her description of a neighbor and friend, Alexandrine, a local florist, is wonderful and you can see how close the women are and how much they admire, and need, one another. It’s in these letters about Alexandrine that you catch glimpses of Rose’s relationship with the daughter she never felt close to and you see why she feels so loving toward Alexandrine.

At first I thought of Rose as a stubborn old woman but soon found myself admiring the character for her strength and convictions. To her, the house was more than just simple bricks and mortar. It was her life and the memories that kept her going. She refused to part with it for reasons that only she understood but also out of love for a husband she wanted desperately to feel close to after his death. It’s a love story on more than one level.

The House I Loved

Tatiana de Rosnay

St. Martin’s Press

ISBN: 9780312593308

4 stars

 

Review – The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

You’ve heard me say it before so don’t act surprised to hear it now — I have a thing about France and particularly Marie Antoinette.  I have no idea why, I just do. Now, since I’m in the confession mood, I read Melanie Clegg’s blog, Madame Guillotine, and have for a while. I’m a good lurker like that and she’s interesting and funny so I keep going back. Anyway, I saw the book there and then one day I saw it come up on my Nook and I bought it. I’m so happy I did too.

The Secret Diary of a Princess is told through the diary entries of the young Marie Antoinette starting as a child in the Viennese Court, her early education (and antics), family turmoil, and her eventual marriage. She leads a privileged life, and because she’s considered unimportant in terms of being marriageable material, she gets away with a lot. When it’s decided by her Empress mother that she will become the Dauphine of France, her life is forever changed. Gone are the jsilly games she would play, gone are the teachers who let her education lag, and in their place are new manners and etiquette to be learned and new people to impress.

This book delighted me in the way it was told. It’s a young girl writing and relaying her antics and daily problems such as not being able to enjoy some of the things her older sibling are allowed to do. When her mother’s plans are announced for her future, Marie Antoinette is no longer the least important of the daughters but is now the daughter the Empress is placing a huge burden on. She begins to feel the weight of what her mother wants of her but you also see a very young, and very scared, girl. I liked that. While Marie Antoinette doesn’t change dramatically — she still has the worries of and understanding of a young girl who doesn’t see the political ramifications of her actions — you see a glimpse of the woman she’s about to become.

There’s so much written about Marie Antoinette, her early life included, and while no one would say it was easy, it was certainly interesting. She is the youngest child of 15, lives a quiet and sheltered life at the Viennese court, and is then elevated to being the Queen of France. It’s an amazing story in some ways even more fascinating than anything fiction writers can imagine. I think that’s why I keep going back to books about her and this time frame. It all fascinates me so much.

Anyway, back to the book. I enjoyed it and when I came to the end, I was actually sad to see there was no more. It ends in a necessary place but I wanted it to go on. The dairy of a princess must stop when she stops being a child. My only quibble, and it’s a small one, is that I never thought of Marie Antoinette as being a writer so it took me a minute to take my early thoughts out it and get lost in the story. It didn’t take long. I was too entranced by the story to care at that point.

Finally, I did see that Clegg is writing a sequel to this one and I’m planning to read that one as well. I’m interested to see how she handles the next stage in this character’s life.

A Secret Diary of a Princess: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

By Melanie Clegg

BN ID: 2940011400735

Smashwords Self-published

4 stars

Review – The Lantern

I wanted to read this book the moment I heard about it. It was supposedly a take on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and I fully adored that book. Love, love, loved it. I waited though but read every review of it I could, spoilers and all. When I finally gave it, I read it in almost one sitting. I couldn’t put it down.

Eve, a translator working in Switzerland, falls for a man named Dom. Their whirlwind relationship lands them in Provence at a small abandoned house called St. Genévriers in the south of France. They’re in love with each other and with the little house they bought. Dom, having sold a successful business, has money and it makes for a quiet, easy life. They get lost in restoring the now run-down little hamlet to its former glory. What they didn’t count on was a devastating secret coming back to haunt them.

This book moves between the past and the present but never falters in atmosphere. The setting, strewn with lavender fields and dark secrets, is wonderfully evocative. Lawrenson drops you in those fields, describing each and every petal almost. I worried in the beginning that I would tire of her descriptions but I didn’t. Every setting comes with a tactile feeling — gritty, dust falling from a ceiling, a rough wall, the soft petals of a flower. I fell in love with it and I have a thing for French settings which I know made this an easy sell for me.

The relationship between Eve and Dom isn’t so open and easy though. Dom has a secret he refuses to share for all of Eve’s prodding. It casts a pall on their happy life which Dom seems fine with. Eve begins to harp on it and can’t let go. When everything is finally revealed, the secret, while devastating, doesn’t destroy them even if the life they thought they had has now disappeared.

An enchanting, gothic tale it is but it’s not Rebecca. I don’t think anything will live up to that book for me, and in a way, I think it’s unfair to position this book as a re-telling of that story. While a few elements will remind you of du Maurier, this isn’t the same story. When I started this book, I did remind myself on almost every page not to compare it to Rebecca and that didn’t happen past the first few chapters. The comparisons didn’t change my opinion of this book either. It was good. It stood on its own. Comparisons be damned.

The Lantern is a story of people looking to be loved and finding happiness and fulfillment in lives full of sadness. It moves at a slow pace but feels as though it has an ending and will come to some sort of resolution, happy or not. Everything is solved and the explanations are not always simple ones, but they have meaning and purpose for the characters which I can appreciate even if I felt some things were left too easily.

This was my first book of 2012 and I have to say it started my year off pretty well.

The Lantern

By Deborah Lawrenson

Harper

ISBN: 9780062049698

4 stars

Review – Becoming Marie Antoinette

Becoming Marie Antoinette

By Juliet Grey

Ballantine Books

ISBN: 9780345523860

4 stars

Marie Antoinette has long been a favorite character of mine in historical fiction. The French court, the elaborate pomp and circumstance, and then there is the setting — Versailles. In Becoming Marie Antoinette, Grey takes us past the court window dressings introducing us to a young girl struggling to fit in and be someone much more French than her Austrian roots allow.

The Austrian court is a quiet refuge for a young Marie Antonia, the youngest daughter of the empress. She has a lot of freedom and never having been much of a scholar, she does her best to avoid every lesson possible. When she’s told she will be marrying the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, she spends her days dreaming of marriage and children. However, she fails to understand her future marriage is more than a simple arrangement; it will be the culmination of a treaty between the Austrian empress and the French king. Her days spent dreaming in the garden are over. Her mother, knowing she needs to impress not only the French ambassador but eventually the French king, his court, and the country’s people, Marie Antonia’s education begins again with a decided slant towards making her not just appear French but to be French.

Understanding for the first time the gravity of her marriage, Marie Antonia takes everything seriously from learning to endure French hair and clothing to performing the Versailles glide — a way of walking through the halls of the palace — perfectly. When her wedding plans are finally announced, the young daydreamer has been transformed into a young woman who may not entirely understand her new role, but is willing to try. Anxious to finally meet her husband, she does her best to make a good impression on everyone she meets during her journey. When she finally arrives, more changes await her, the least of which is being stripped of everything Austrian to be replaced completely with French versions including her name. She submits; Marie Antonia becomes Marie Antoinette.

Determined to be nothing if not loved, Marie Antoinette makes it her duty to impress: her husband, the king, and the court. Unfortunately, not everyone finds her alluring and especially not her new husband. A quiet man of few words, she can’t figure out how to get through to him and the rumors of a virginal marriage bed begin to haunt her. With no place to find solace in a court constantly full of gossipy, curious courtiers, she attempts to understand the man who is her husband.

What’s so interesting about this particular story is that we meet a young Marie Antoinette who has no head for academics but is able to make just about everyone love her. She’s fun and while she knows her freedom won’t last, she’s resigned to making the best of it. While the Marie Antoinette we meet isn’t the refined and glamorous woman of most historical fiction, she’s certainly a lovable character and most of that is due to her age. She’s young, incredibly young even for her age. And while you may know what’s coming her way, she seems blissful at least to a certain point. It’s when she comes to understand the difficulties that lay ahead for her, you begin to not only like her but feel for her. A foreign archduchess, she’s not looked upon kindly and realizes fast there are few she can trust in her new home.

The relationship with Louis has its poignant moments and frankly some embarrassing ones as well. But you also see two young adults attempting to figure out what’s expected of them and how they plan to live up to those expectations. Finding they love each other along the way lends sweetness to a story that can easily be trounced on by an overbearing French court. There are a few places in the story when I did wish for less information as Grey has obviously done her research but overall those moments don’t cause harm. In many ways this is a coming of age story, but it’s also full of some interesting characters you don’t want to let go of even at the end which is good because Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first in a planned trilogy.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for the Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

Teaser Tuesdays – Becoming Marie Antoinette

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  The idea is to give everyone a look inside the book you’re reading.

Play along: Grab your current read; Open to a random page; Share two teaser sentences from that page; Share the title and author so other participants know what you’re reading.

I’m starting Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey today.  Here’s your peek inside:

“The footmen inside the palace stood at attention, never lowering their gaze to acknowledge us.  Their gold and black livery nearly shimmered in the highly polished parquet.” (pg. 16)

Review – Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV

By Karleen Koen

Crown Publishers

ISBN: 978030771657-6

4 stars

I’ve always had a soft spot for the antics of the French court even more so than the English courts and I’m the type of person who can’t turn down a story about the Tudors. In books revolving around the monarchy, whether French or English, one can’t have a story without a mistress and let’s all agree that’s what makes the story. Isn’t that why these books are so much fun? Oh, it is and Koen doesn’t disappoint.

Cardinal Mazarin, the French prime minister, is dead and Louis XIV, only twenty-two years-old, is now king of France and a king with power. That power is not yet firmly grasped but he’s intent on learning to yield it fully. Unaware of many of the financial arrangements his mother and the Cardinal made while ruling in his stead, he’s in for a surprise when he finally takes it upon himself to investigate. Unsure of his financial minister’s monetary affairs and how mingled they are with the crown’s accounts, he has suspicions and employs a faithful counselor to help him sort through the courtly promises and financial advice being offered.

To add another distraction, Louis has fallen in love with his brother Philippe’s wife, Princess Henriette, a woman captivating not only the king but the entire French court. A man not used to being denied, Louis attempts to make Henriette his mistress against the wishes of not only his brother but also his mother who believes it will be his downfall. Married to a woman he greatly admires for her breeding and royal pedigree, unfortunately, he doesn’t truly love her and is looking for a distraction she can’t provide. He knows it’s the idea of passion and surprise that comes from his illicit affair with Henriette but Louis can’t help himself. To calm the court, Henriette suggests he flirt with one of her maids; a shy but very pretty young woman named Louise. Then something happens he didn’t expect — Louis finds he might have fallen in love.

Before Versailles started slowly for but it was almost as if it was waiting for Louis to find his footing as king and once he found his confidence, so did the story. While the affair between Louis and Henriette is more intense, the affair with Louise is completely the opposite but in a way more satisfying. All the court intrigue requirements needed for a story like this are met and then some. Oddly, the financial scandal is also quite good, adding a harder edge to what is mostly a love story. It’s a nice contrast for Louis as he grows into his role as a king and what he’s dealing with on the political level makes you see why he craves love in the quieter parts of his life. I was happy to see the political elements here. In stories about kings and mistresses it sometimes gets pushed to the side and becomes background noise. Here that doesn’t happen and it’s refreshing. There is a small side story involving Louise that feels slightly out of place but it’s the only stumble in an otherwise entertaining book.

I read a lot of historical fiction and I love when authors find a way to make well-known figures interesting and intense characters that allow you to imagine another life for that person. Koen does that with Louis XIV. I finished wanting to know more about the king that would build the palace of Versailles. That can be difficult to accomplish sometimes.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.

 

Review – The Forever Queen

The Forever Queen

By Helen Hollick

Source Books

ISBN: 1402240686

4.5 stars

Emma was 13 years-old when her brother, the Norman King, married her off to the English King Æthelred.  Besides her being anointed Queen in her own right, it’s a terrible match that at times humiliates and terrifies Emma.  Her husband, who spent his life being ruled by his mother, has no idea what it takes to be a king let alone a decent man.  When Danish invaders take control, he capitulates and later dies a sad and very lonely death.  Not knowing what will become of her or her children now that the Danish king is in control of her land, Emma offers herself in marriage to Cnut, the Danish King, making him through her the new English King.  Her second marriage is much happier than her first and she and her country spend many content years with Cnut as their king.

When Cnut dies, Emma fears the loss of her crown and understands deeply the threat her country faces the day that Cnut’s son from his first marriage appears to lay claim to the thrown which he believes to be rightly his.  When her son with Cnut, Harthacnut, does not return to England to fight for the crown, she recalls her long abandoned sons from her first marriage, Edward and Alfred, to return with disastrous consequences forcing Emma to once again fight to keep her crown and position as Queen.

I usually don’t write such long descriptions in my reviews but I felt this one, being as long as it is (793 pages on my Nook) and the length of Emma’s rule, deserved a longer than normal introduction.  Emma, while not a likable character — she’s disgusted by her husband and her sons from her first marriage, isn’t motherly, is outwardly cruel to her husband and sons (the husband deserving though), and cares in some cases more for her crown and title as Queen above all else — is intensely interesting.  Her life is anything but boring; sad yes, horrid in some cases, lonely, and when she finds happiness there is always something that threatens it (another wife, more sons).  While I still don’t know if I liked her, I couldn’t put this book down wondering what would happen to her next.

Hollick is a great writer of historical fiction and since reading her Arthurian legend trilogy last year, she’s shot up my list of favorite authors.  While there were a few slow parts and an incredible list of characters to keep track of, I still liked this book a lot.  She picks subjects and characters whose parts in actual history may have been forgettable but gives them a fictional voice that makes them unforgettable.