How do you go about writing a review for a book that is about one of the most influential women of the 18th century? Wait…how do you go about writing an entire book about one of the most influential women of the 18th century? I am talking about Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, more commonly known as Madame de Pompadour, and Sally Christie has brought her to life in the second installment of her Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, the Rivals of Versailles. Readers, prepare yourself for more inappropriate innuendos!
Released: April 2016
Publisher: Atria Books
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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.
I start a lot of book series, but I almost never feel compelled to finish them. Even if I like the first book in a series enough to publicly claim, “I can’t wait to get my hands on book two”, I rarely ever actually track down book two. So, it is a testament to Sally Christie’s writing and story-telling prowess that I am even sitting here typing up this review and setting a reminder on my calendar for November 1, 2016, which is when her final installment in this series, the Enemies of Versailles, is to be released. But, I may be getting a head of myself. With wit, hilarity (that spider scene!), and rich and colorful descriptions, Christie brings Versailles to life once more.
That’s not to suggest everyone is new, of course. We are treated to the silly Diane de Mailly Nesle, one of the sisters and the king’s previous mistress, who seems just as dense and scatter-brained despite her age. The Duke of Richelieu is back and full of schemes as usual, and he frequently goes head-to-head with Madame de Pompadour. And of course, there is the ever lustful king, Louis XV. His trysts with the Sisters of Versailles have emboldened him; he has grown much more lascivious with age, and now he is practically a Libertine. Did you know, he had something like 69 mistresses during his reign? I’m not even making that number up, but you have to admit it’s oddly appropriate…
While readers can take comfort in familiar characters, it is Louis XV’s newest mistresses that arouse interest the most. Like the Sisters of Versailles, Christie’s Rivals is a story revealed from multiple points of view. Although, while Sisters alternated between the sisters nearly every chapter (which took some time to get used to), Rivals is split into six acts. Three acts are dedicated to Madame de Pompadour during various stages in her life, and three acts are dedicated to her rivals, Rosalie, Morphise, and Marie-Anne, who are determined to tear down the reigning mistress as well as the king’s velvety breeches.
Rosalie was a compelling character. I mean, she lacked social grace, which was her downfall, but she seemed the least afraid of her sexuality, which despite the content of these books, was actually kind of surprising. Because Catholicism is so deeply rooted in these character’s (read: people’s) lives, there is this sense of shame surrounding the act of…well…the act of adultery (because, obviously?) and sex in general. But Rosalie was a bit of a Casanova; she basically waggled her eyebrows (and other body parts) at any man.
Morphise was also a compelling character, but mostly because she was so, so young and caught up in a world any reader wishes she wouldn’t have to know. She’s a fourteen-year-old prostitute, and no matter how you try to put that in to context (it’s 18th-century France, and that just the way it was, those lustful Libertines), or no matter how many times you remind yourself that you’re reading Game of Thrones and Daenerys Targaryen is quite young herself, you’re still left thinking “EW! EW! EW! EW! EW!” when you realize her patrons are dukes and kings twice her age (EW! EW! EW!). The juxtaposition of Morphise and her patrons is so jarring. They talk at her about politics, and she’s distracted by shoes and baubles and pearls so graciously given to her for a job well done. There are no finer ways to spend tax payer money in 18th century France.
As for Marie-Anne? I don’t have much to say about her. She’s a shadow of her namesake, Marie-Anne de Mailly Nesle, the king’s favorite mistress, but she has about as many brain cells as her Aunt Diane.
She’s so bourgeois though, which is one of the reasons why she has so many rivals. Despite that she manages to establish herself as a puppet master of the king and influences French culture and political and economic decisions. She rubbed elbows with Voltaire, became an advocate for the Encyclopedia even though people swore the books were heretical, and introduced “pompadour pink” porcelain to the world. Oh! And she also helped spiral France into an economic downfall, which would eventually lead to the French Revolution (poor, poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette). Technicalities though…
She’s not as vivacious as some of Louis’s other mistresses, and the Acts during which she narrates are slower and her personality and devious behavior and influence is more subtle in comparison. But, I found that I didn’t mind this because I felt like I was able to watch the character of Madame de Pompadour grow throughout the novel. However, I did feel like something was missing from her story, and that was her relationship with the queen. While the rest of Louis’s mistresses cared very little for the queen, and some may have actually mocked her, Madame de Pompadour’s relationship with and service to the queen is said to be one of the reasons she gained power at court and Louis’s trust. I would have loved to read that, but readers will only catch a glimpse of it at the very end of the novel.
I’m still experiencing a book high from the Sisters of Versailles, so I’m positively giddy that the Rivals of Versailles is a strong and excellent installment in the Mistresses of Versailles Trilogy. Christie’s wit and style of writing is consistent, which is an exciting discovery because I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us. I know the Enemies of Versailles will be a satisfying ending to this trilogy, but I’m also curious about her other projects. I’m crossing my fingers that her Tudor Tutor story comes to fruition.