Every once in a while, I finish a book, and I’m in such awe of what I read that I struggle to find the words to express that. Sometimes I avoid writing a review for a while so I can let every character, setting, and scene sink in, but I do not have that luxury with the Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. To be totally honest, this review should have probably gone live several hours ago, but I’ve been budgeting my time very poorly lately, and instead found myself finishing this book during my lunch break at work today. Luckily, submersing myself in the world of the Sisters of Versailles came easily; this novel swept me off my feet faster than King Louis XV swept Louise Mailly-Nesle off her feet…or her sister Pauline…or their sisters Marie-Anne and Diane. As for this review? Bare with me here.
Released: September 2015
Publisher: Atria Books
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Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.
Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
This books was so far out of my comfort zone…and I loved it
First, as much as I’m intrigued by historical fiction, I don’t read it often. Okay, I did recently read Maisie Dobbs: an Incomplete Revenge, and there was also the Carnival at Bray (if you consider the 1990s to be “historical”, which I would rather not think of my childhood in that manner quite yet), but aside from those books, I really struggle to recall the last historical fiction book I read. I think it’s been years…yeeaaarssss. Truthfully, I find it an intimidating genre because it makes me realize how much I don’t know about history (and I prefer to think of myself as having Ravenclaw potential).
While reading the Sisters of Versailles, I realized, either I didn’t pay attention in AP World History, or our textbooks were seriously lacking anything related to French history. I’m only vaguely familiar with both the Reign of Terror thanks to the Sofia Coppola directed Marie Antoinette, and the French Revolution because I’m sure it had something to do with the Enlightenment, which was also a thing in America…maybe? Oh hush! It’s been over ten years since that World History class, and the French Revolution and/or it’s related ideologies hasn’t really come up in conversation since then, like ever.
Much to my chagrin, the Sisters of Versailles didn’t even take place during the Reign of Terror or the French Revolution, so I was out of luck there, and on Wikipedia instead. Search terms included:
- Louis XV (also Louis XIV and Louis XVI…Louis XIII)
- Versailles (mostly to look at pictures, but did you know it has 700 rooms?)
- Libertine (some snooty philosophy that condones hedonism, which is weird because the French were supposed to be pious and Catholic and such)
- Water Cure (spoiler: it’s not a cure; it’s a torture method)
- Affair of the Poisons (scandelooooouuuussss!)
- Moliere (he’s a playwright, and…er, that’s all I’ve got)
Second, this book was pretty steamy– I mean for a book-prude like myself. It was about the King of France and his mistresses after all. Plus, there were so many double entendres. I’m sure there were triple and quadruple entendres too, if such a thing exists. I would have liked a Parisian hand fan to wave at myself every time someone dropped a pin cushion in front of the mistresses.
I was confident that I was going to adore this book in the first twenty pages
Hortense’s prologue is alright, and perhaps it exists so that she could wrap up the novel’s events (which I actually appreciated) in the epilogue without seeming out-of-place. But the true artwork of this novel beings on page 17, and it doesn’t stop.
Versailles. Vastness and grandeur and echoes; the chatter of a hundred persons murmuring in polite whispers, the sound overwhelming though each speaks so softly; the smell of a thousand scents mingling; a great crush of people like a painting come to life.
Sally Christie’s prose is poetic. Her settings are rich with vivid descriptions of cracked, carmine lips and powdered hair; Persian rugs that feel as soft as kitten fur but smell like dog and musk and tobacco; the juxtaposition of grime and gilt that could only exists at a place like Versailles, and it was consistent throughout the entire novel. It was like a painting come to life. Nay! It was like Versailles come to life.
The characters drove the plot
I have such a love/hate relationship with the characters in the Sisters of Versailles. But in a good way? So much about them, with the exception of Hortense, is un-likeable. And it’s not because they’re all debauchees, either. I mean, I get it. People in 18th century France didn’t marry for love. Marriages were arranged for titles or land or dowries or political gain, and sometimes they got married to someone they never met before but were vaguely aware that it was their cousin’s cousin or their mother’s cousin. Although…apparently love affairs were also arranged by the King’s advisers for political influence, and of course the ladies could persuade the King for the title of a Duchess instead of a lowly Marquess. I mean, really it was just this corrupt, conniving, sororally-backstabby, sultry mess, and I gobbled it up faster than Diane Mailly-Nesle gobbles up sugar pies and pineapples and duck fat seared in wine.
In fact, I’m still hungry, and luckily, I will have my hands on a copy of the Rivals of Versailles (The Mistresses of Versailles #2), which will be released April 5, 2016, very shortly. The second book in the series is about Marquise de Pompadour, only the most famous of Louis XV’s mistresses. Or would that be infamous?
P.S. I’m actually about to start the Rivals of Versailles next, if that is any testament to how much I enjoyed this book (y’know, because I suck are reading series).
P.P.S. (or is that P.S.S.?) I should have mentioned it earlier but Christie infuses wit and subtle humor in to her story, which is not something I usually associate with historical fiction. And when I say subtle humor, I mean I laughed out loud.
P.P.P.S: I had originally rated this book four stars, but by the end of writing this review, I realized it’s really a five-star book. Sally Christie is my Queen!