Author: Sally Christie
Publisher: Atria Books (March 21, 2017)
How Acquired: Net Galley/TLC Book Tours
Back Cover: 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 is quite another kettle of fish.”
After decades of 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 (this should really be dauphine, who wrote this back cover copy?) 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.
My thoughts: This is the third and final volume of Sally Christie's absorbing trilogy about the court of Louis XV, and it does not disappoint. The story is narrated in alternating 1st person POV, divided between Madame du Barry and Madame Adelaide, one of the six daughters of Louis XV. The story starts when young Jeanne is still a child. Her mother works for a courtesan in the kitchen, while young Jeanne dreams of a life of luxury and indolence. From the very first chapter, we meet a small child who is fun-loving, lives in the moment, not book-smart, who has a kind heart. She's also amazingly naive for someone who grew up so poor that she has to walk barefoot so that she doesn't ruin her one pair of shoes in the mud. Jeanne is sent to a convent where she is loved by the students AND the nuns, which has to be a first. She's effortlessly charming but hopeless at the whole employment thing until she's employed by an expensive boutique where she meets the Comte du Barry and her journey really beings.
Madame Adelaide is a different kettle of fish all together, and I have to say that her sections of the book were my least favorite in the beginning, probably because she's the complete opposite of Jeanne. Madame Adelaide is rigid, very concerned with her position and the etiquette of the court. She reminds me of that one co-worker who is a stickler for the rules, who reports even the slightest infraction, but who also gives unsolicited advice. The type of person who is always taking classes, and reading self-improvement books and tells you about them endlessly. Her one saving grace is that she loves her family. Her love for her father however is possessive, she wants to be his favorite. While she worries for his soul, and abhors his relationship with 'the fish woman' as she insists, she wants to be the one that he turns too.
However, her chapter gives fascinating insights into the lives of the daughters of France, five of whom never married. They are the superfluous women of the court as they grow older, their influence waning over the years. It's rather sad, and it reminds me of the lives of George III"s daughters, many of whom also never married. The book can be divided really into 2 parts, Louis XV, and afterwards. The book loses steam a bit until it runs headlong into the revolution.
Christie does an amazing job of painting a vivid portrait of court life at Versailles but also the two women. While Madame Adelaide considers du Barry (and before her Pompadour) to be an enemy, du Barry basks in the love of the King and the friends she makes at court. Jeanne's character is as uncomplicated as Madame Adelaide's is complicated. Interestingly as the book went on, I found myself growing more frustrated with Madame du Barry and more understanding of Madame Adelaide who eventually grows and changes while Jeanne seems to stay the same fun-loving child.
One of the great things about the trilogy for me was that I knew very little about the court of Louis XV. I knew the names of Pompadour and du Barry but very little of what they were like as people other than Pompadour's libido couldn't keep up with the King's. Since I knew so little, I was able to come to the trilogy without preconceived notions of the characters which I think helped because I was able to turn off that internal historian that sometimes can get in the way when I read historical fiction, particularly about a period that I know a great deal about. You can see how the seeds of the French monarchy's destruction were sewn tighter by Louis XV. If only he hadn't followed the model of his great-grandfather and been a more enlightened monarch. Christie makes several comparisons in the novel between how the British monarchy evolved and the French monarchy didn't.
Any reader who loves intrigue, royalty, beautiful clothes and a dramatic period of history should pick up The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy.