Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.
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, naïve Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne—will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.
A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France's most "well-beloved" monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.
Louis XV is a king that tends to get skipped over somewhat in fiction between the larger-than-life figures of Louis XIV and XVI, and when I saw that this book was about four sisters who were all his mistresses, I had to read it. I was not disappointed!
The story begins with Hortense, the only one of five sisters who did not become mistress to the king, as she reflects back on a lifetime of memories. Through her, we get a glimpse of what's to come before moving on to Louise, the first and longest-reigning of the sister mistresses. The story is then told alternatingly by all of the sisters, from their isolated childhood to their separation after the death of their mother to their reunion at court and all of the pleasure and heartache that come with it. At first, I was wary of a story told from five different first-person points of view, but I was pleasantly surprised at how the author managed to give all five sisters distinct voices and personalities. I really fell for all of them, and even though a couple of them became right bitches and I was anticipating when they would get what was coming to them, I cried when they did. They are all very well-drawn women with their own hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, and methods of dealing with disappointment and tragedy.
Louis is not painted in the best light in this story. Although it's easy to see what each of the sisters sees in him, I found myself railing against a man who could so easily use women and toss them aside when he was finished, readily building each of them up and then distancing himself during their downfall, willfully oblivious to the heartache he left in his wake. He is portrayed as a weak king, easily led by others, more interested in the pursuit of pleasure than in ruling a kingdom, and though this novel is rather light on the history of the time period, (as the sisters are mostly insulated from anything that doesn't take place within the king's court), little hints point to running themes throughout his reign that will eventually lead to the French Revolution.
The Sisters of Versailles is very well written, with transporting descriptions of the decadence of the French court contrasting nicely with the brief glimpses of the common people's hardship and suffering on the occasions when the sisters travel from palace to palace. The court itself is like a living, breathing monster, peopled with many real-life characters, all of whom have their own agendas. Its glittering, luxuriant facade veils a cesspool of ugly hearts and unrepentant debauchery, filled with traps and pitfalls, secrets and lies, and wrenching betrayals. It's a difficult road our sisters must navigate, and here that old adage has never been more true: it's lonely at the top.
The only thing that keeps me from rating the book higher is that I found some sections to be somewhat slow moving and repetitive in content, though I still found The Sisters of Versailles to be a supremely emotional and satisfying read. I felt very sad afterward that these remarkable women had been all but forgotten by history, and I was grateful to Sally Christie for bringing them to life for me. I am very much looking forward to the remaining two books in the series, which will feature Louis XV's more famous mistresses, Madame du Pompadour and Madame du Barry.
My Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
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