Published: April 5, 2016 by Atria Books
Genre: historical fiction > France
While The Sisters of Versailles focused quite a lot on the relations between the sisters de Mailly-Nesle, The Rivals of Versailles revolves first around King Louis XV, though all roads lead back to Madame de Pompadour. It’s not without reason that most know the name of Madame/Marquise de Pompadour (if not her birth name, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson). She was intensely important not just to the king, but to France, and the world.
The novel begins with a Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson that I found to be unbearable. Unschooled in etiquette, ambitious though rather empty-headed. It was only later, when seen older and through the eyes of ‘rivals’ who were mostly recruited by the Marquise herself. Experience rounds her out as a character and makes the reader root for her despite the odds. Though historians tend to laud favor on Jeanne Poisson for her patronage of the arts, The Rivals of Versailles doesn’t hold any punches when it comes to Madame de Pompadour being generally despised by France and the majority of the court.
Like its predecessor, The Rivals of Versailles is filled with letters (generally to the Marquise when it is her point of view, and from the Marquise when it is not). They act as a little flavor and backstory, and give glimpses of the Marquise during long stretches of her life being told by other women – or girls, more likely. There are also Entr’Actes, windows to the Marquise (then Duchesse) while the others have their stories with the King told. They also serve to place the events of the novel among important events in history where it wouldn’t fit to have one of the girls mention the events themselves, given how ignorant Marie-Anne is.
The middle of the novel is told by lesser mistresses of Henry XV, all of whom seek to banish the Marquise and take her spot as chief mistress. Rosalie (Charlotte Rosalie de Choiseul-Beaupré), Morphise (Marie-Louise O’Murphy), and Marie-Anne de Mailly de Coislin all tell their stories sandwiched between the beginning and end of the Marquise’s life.
For me, this novel was far better than the first. Sally Christie really put herself to work making these girls seem alive; what’s more is these women cannot lean on each other as the de Mailly sisters could for humor in the first novel. They all stand alone, distinct and wonderful. Rosalie as a particularly lecherous girl, Marie-Louise as a steadfast girl in the face of child prostitution, and Marie-Anne as a poor pawn, an empty-headed girl used to advance the desires of others. All of their acts end in a similar fashion – and I won’t say what, but you might guess. Each of them, too, shows a different facet of the aging King, and the wit and power of the Marquise de Pompadour, whose entire life and livelihood revolves around Louis XV.
The beginning, with a young Jeanne Poisson, was slow for me – as were the long and weary chapters with a salacious Rosalie. However, soon I sank into the novel and was swept away on a tide of lechery and indiscretion. This second installment in the trilogy is more steamy than I remember the first being, though not too steamy as to draw away from the delectable power plays and backstabbing of court life. I am not a particular fan of ‘romance’ novels, or smut. The Rivals of Versailles handles with the budding sexuality of young women, and the unfortunate cases of child prostitution, in a way that is neither inappropriately titillating nor offensive while retaining the facts and emotion of a scene without being salacious itself. This is a difficult line to walk and Sally Christie managed it with ease.
And, like when Anne Boleyn was executed, I cried at the Marquise’s death. Mistress novels always have me rooting for the girls who, having lived several hundred years prior to myself, are of course dead. And what a way to end a book, if a bit cheesy. I eagerly await the next installment, which will cover Comtesse du Barry and the daughters of the king. September is too long to wait!
Disclaimer: I received a review copy from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.