May Books of the Month: Rivals of Versailles by Sally Christie and Marlene by C.W. Gortner

I know I have been neglecting this blog shamelessly. This summer, I hope to endeavor to do better. In my defense, I have been working on multiple writing projects, several non-fiction proposals that I’m hoping to sell as well as some fiction.  Nothing concrete, meaning nothing has been signed, but it has been occupying a great deal of my time.  I’ve also had a difficult job situation this year, I’ve had to leave a job that I loved, since my new boss decided she needed someone with more experience and fundraising, and my boss at my new temp assignment just quit. So 2016 has been a bitch so far, not to mention losing Prince, David Bowie, Ken Howard and Alan Rickman. I dread picking up the paper to see who else we have lost. In my few hours of down time, I have been reading a great deal of historical fiction lately, and I have two books that I absolutely have to recommend.

Rivals of VersaillesSally Christie
Published by:  Atria Books
Pub Date:  April 5, 2016
How Acquired:  TLC Book Tours

The Rivals of Versailles continues the story of King Louis XV and his lady loves, this time focusing on the fabulous Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, the Marquise de Pompadour, a little girl from the middle classes who rose to become the virtual Queen of France.  Jeanne's voice and story are balanced against a few of her many rivals. Pompadour remained by Louis' side for almost two decades, and as the king continued his descent into pure libertinage, she was along for the ride.​​

I read and reviewed Christie’s first book last year The Sisters of Versailles about the de Mailly sisters, all of whom at one point mistresses of a young Louis XV.  I adored the book and couldn’t wait to read the sequel, Rivals of Versailles.  I was not disappointed in the slightest.  If anything, Christie has topped herself with this novel. I was captivated from the first sentence, meeting the young Jeanne de Poisson. I thought I knew who Madame Pompadour was, having seen her images in paintings over the years, but I realized that I only knew the tip of the iceberg.  What a remarkable woman.  I have to say after reading both novels that I no longer envy the life of a royal mistress, particularly at Versailles.  Charles II’s court seems like a walk in the park compared to the back-stabbing and jockeying for position that went on at Versailles. I supposed that is why reading about Louis XV’s court is so intriguing.  By this time in the UK, the British were stuck with the Georges, I and II, neither of whom had very interesting mistresses.

Pompadour loves the King, but he’s wearing her out with his sexual demands, which don’t seem to diminish with age (Damn those Bourbons!), and the courtiers who are constantly pushing forward their candidates to replace her. I admire the way that Jeanne continued to educate herself to make herself worthy of being a royal mistress.  Knowing that she couldn’t keep up with him sexually, Jeanne made herself indispensable as a confidante and an advisor.  That was the one thing that her rivals didn’t count on, that the King kept her around because he couldn’t do without her advice.

One of the fantastic things about this novel is that we get to meet women who are less well known than Madame de Pompadour, each sort of representing a different phase in the King’s life. Christie does a remarkable job of making each woman so individual that you almost don’t miss Pompadour.  One of my favorites is Marie Louise O'Murphy (Morphise) a young prostitute who also modeled for the painter Boucher.  Marie Louise has been on the game since she was a young girl of about ten.  Concerned about losing the favor of the King, Pompadour has one of his men choosing women and setting them up in a house for the King to visit, like a private brothel for one. Seriously, can you imagine loving someone that much that you are willing to help pimp for him? Mary Louise’s time with the King is short but her section of the book is amongst the most vivid in the novel as is her backstory.  I don’t want to spoil anything but I could easily have read a whole book just about her life. Both Marie-Louise and Pompadour had a great deal in common, both rose from humble origins to great heights.

I also enjoyed the fact that the reader is introduced to two of the King’s daughters, Henriette and Adelaide who is destined to be a main character in the last book of the trilogy, as well as to the Dauphin and Dauphine.  I highly recommend this book, particularly if you enjoy reading about royal shenanigans and are suffering from Tudor fatigue. To me, it is a more fully realized book than the first one.  If you are a fan of Outlander, you should definitely pick up this book because the second season of the series is set in Paris at Louis XV’s court.  

Marlene – C.W. Gortner
Published by:  William Morrow
How Acquired:  Edelweiss
Pub Date:  May 24, 2016

What is about:  From the gender-bending cabarets of Weimar Berlin to the tyrannical movie studios of Los Angeles, this sweeping story of passion, glamour, art, and war is a lush, dramatic novel of one of the most alluring legends of Hollywood’s golden age: Marlene Dietrich. Raised in genteel poverty after the First World War, Maria Magdalena Dietrich dreams of a life on the stage. With her sultry beauty, smoky voice, and androgynous tailored suits, Marlene performs to packed houses and conducts a series of stormy love affairs that push the boundaries of social convention until she finds overnight success in the scandalous movie The Blue Angel. For Marlene, neither fame nor marriage and motherhood can cure her wanderlust. As Hitler rises to power, she sets sail for America to become a rival to MGM’s queen, Greta Garbo.
An enthralling account of this extraordinary legend, MARLENE reveals the inner life of a woman of grit and ambition who defied convention, seduced the world, and forged her own path.

I’m always looking for interesting historical fiction to read, particularly about women and time periods that I know very little about.  Two reasons, the less I know about a period, the more enjoyable I find the book (the more I know about a time period, the pickier I get with writers), and I love discovering new things.  Now, Marlene Dietrich was not unknown to me, I have seen several of films and frankly I think she’s an underrated as a film actress.  But I only knew the bare bones about her life before she made it to Hollywood.  I’ve raved before about Gortner’s books. He has an uncanny ability to get deep inside his female characters so that the novel reads as if Marlene is confiding in the reader, telling him or her secrets that she has never revealed before.  The novel is told in the first person, in an almost intimate tone. At times it almost felt too personal, as if Marlene were peeling herself like an onion for the reader.

I have to admit that my favorite part of the book is the first section, Marlene’s early years, living in genteel poverty with her mother and sister, trying to keep up appearances, her first stirrings of attraction and love for both men and women, her early forays into show business, living in Berlin during the Weimar Republic where almost anything goes.  There are faint echoes of Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, although that novel is set a bit later. The entire book could have been about Marlene’s early years and ended with her leaving for Hollywood and I would have been a happy girl.  The section of the book dealing with Marlene’s early Hollywood years tends to fall a bit flat, more a catalogue of the films she made and the stars that she slept with.  The book gets a jolt of energy and pizazz dealing with the years that Marlene spent entertaining the troops during World War II, insisting on being at the front, and the aftermath of the war, attempting to find her family and learning how they survived after she left Berlin, the disillusionment.

I also found Marlene’s relationship with her mother, older sister and her daughter to be intriguing although, her relationship with her daughter isn’t fully fleshed out. That maybe because Marlene wasn’t really interested in being a mother, not full-time anyway.  She went through the motions but her heart wasn’t really in it.  In a certain way, she was as indifferent to her daughter as her mother was to her. In the end, I didn’t find Marlene as satisfying a read as I did Gortner’s Mademoiselle Chanel.  But if you are dying to read a novel filled with glitz, glamour, and danger, then pick up a copy of Marlene when it comes out next week. 


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