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Published by Atria Books Source: NetGalley
September 1st 2015 | Pages: 432
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A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in a new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France's most "well-beloved" monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed. 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 story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail. Based on meticulous research about a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie's stunning debut is an exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.
With descriptions of ostentatious clothing and food within the opulence of Versailles, The Sisters of Versailles had me interested in the story of the de Mailly-Nesle sisters and their little-known court activities of the 1730s and 1740s before I opened the cover. From an old aristocratic family in economic straits, the Nesle’s were raised with little education in the home of their drunkard father and promiscuous courtier mother. Hortense, the only sister who did not share the bed of King Louis XV remembers it, “There were two worlds in this house: my mother’s world of luxury and indulgence and our children’s world of austerity.”
When eldest sister Louise enters into an arranged marriage with a neglectful, verbally cruel husband, and their mother dies, the adventurous, luxurious life of the Nesle sisters begins. Motherly, sweet Louise is given her mother’s role of lady in waiting to the Queen, and is pushed into the King’s arms as his first “official” royal mistress by courtiers wanting a woman who is malleable to have the ear of the king, not a grasping harpy, and they believe he is growing bored with the queen. Louise is convinced that she is doing what is best for her King and country, beginning an almost obsessive relationship on her part, that lasts until her death. As each sister matures, marries, and comes to court, they all enter the orbit of the King, regardless of how the elder tries to keep her hold.
The Sisters of Versailles is told from each sister’s point of view, which may sound confusing, but was definitely not. They are all very different: motherly Louise who just wants to make Louis’ life easier, grasping, intelligent Pauline who wants to help run the country, silly Diane who loves to eat and can barely write her own name, and the youngest Marie-Anne, the fascinating autodidact who is best known today. Hortense, with a strong, respectful marriage, is rarely at court, although her reputation as the most beautiful Nesle definitely intrigues the King.
I was impressed with Ms. Christie’s ability to put so much characterization into the different narratives and keep me understanding events. This technique also gives readers the option to see the “truth” of this most fantastical tale. We’ve all heard the saying, “There’s one side, another side, and somewhere in the middle is the truth,” and that’s what we get after reading the same events from different perspectives. This doesn’t happen throughout the entire book, as the women are rarely together, but it works well in those situations.
I appreciated the references to the social unrest and injustice of the times, demonstrating that the French Revolution didn’t come out of one season of bad crops sixty years later. The same things were happening in the 1740s, but the peasants didn’t have anyone to inspire them as the United States would in about thirty years.
The Sisters of Versailles is not a romp in the sheets love scene book; there are no scenes that are even semi-graphic. Since I am a reader of plot more than descriptions I appreciated this and enjoyed all of the historical information that was packed into the story. I would even be comfortable recommending it to a mature young adult with some knowledge of the times.
My only complaint, as I always find with historical fiction, was the lack of reference materials. I know only a bit about French history, so a family tree of the Bourbons and a map of the places mentioned would have been helpful to my further understanding, and would definitely be good for someone just picking the book up for the story. I hope publishers will start listening to me on this point.
I can heartily recommend The Sisters of Versailles to lovers of historical fiction, court intrigue, and romance. Two more books, about the more famous mistresses of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, are anticipated.