And you thought sisters were a thing to fear. In this compelling follow-up to Sally Christie's clever and absorbing debut, we meet none other than the Marquise de Pompadour, one of the greatest beauties of her generation and the first bourgeois mistress ever to grace the hallowed halls of Versailles.
"I write this before her blood is even cold. She is dead, suddenly, from a high fever. The King is inconsolable, but the way is now clear."
The year is 1745. Marie-Anne, the youngest of the infamous Nesle sisters and King Louis XV's most beloved mistress, is gone, making room for the next Royal Favorite.
Enter Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a stunningly beautiful girl from the middle classes. Fifteen years prior, a fortune teller had mapped out young Jeanne's destiny: she would become the lover of a king and the most powerful woman in the land. Eventually connections, luck, and a little scheming pave her way to Versailles and into the King's arms.
All too soon, conniving politicians and hopeful beauties seek to replace the bourgeois interloper with a more suitable mistress. As Jeanne, now the Marquise de Pompadour, takes on her many rivals - including a lustful lady-in-waiting; a precocious fourteen-year-old prostitute, and even a cousin of the notorious Nesle sisters - she helps the king give himself over to a life of luxury and depravity. Around them, war rages, discontent grows, and France inches ever closer to the Revolution.
Enigmatic beauty, social climber, actress, trendsetter, patron of the arts, spendthrift, whoremonger, friend, lover, foe. History books may say many things about the famous Marquise de Pompadour, but one thing is clear: for almost twenty years, she ruled France and the King's heart.
Sally Christie's debut novel, The Sisters of Versailles, about a family of five sisters, four of whom became mistresses of Louis XV, made my list of best books of 2015, and so I was anxiously awaiting my chance to read the sequel, The Rivals of Versailles. It picks up right where we left off, only now the story is being told by Jeanne Poisson, the young and beautiful commoner who will become known to history as the unparalleled Madame de Pompadour.
Jeanne, or Reinette as she is called after a fortune-teller predicts she will earn the love of a king, quickly rises from her humble roots thanks to the aid of her mother's lover, a minor courtier who believes Reinette could be the woman to bring the king out of the melancholy he descended into after the death of his favorite mistress, Marie-Anne de Mailly-Nesle, Duchess of Châteauroux. Her fresh beauty and unaffected ways do indeed win the king over, but the very qualities he admires must be overcome and replaced with courtly manners if she is to be taken seriously in his world. Having truly fallen in love with Louis, Reinette immerses herself in lessons and becomes the most elegant and cultured woman at Versailles, a patron of the arts and architecture, and a politically savvy negotiator, guiding Louis through two decades of wars and diplomatic relations. Though she is elevated to the title of Marquise de Pompadour (becoming known simply as "the Marquise") and later to that of duchess, the taint of her common birth is never forgotten by the court, and her position is never safe as rival after rival seeks to unseat her through Louis XV's insatiable appetite for younger and more beautiful women.
While I immediately formed an attachment to Reinette, I missed having different viewpoints. I so enjoyed the sharing of the narrative by five sisters in the first book, and the dynamics between them, that I worried I would grow bored getting only Reinette's point of view. But Christie deftly remedies that midway by handing the narrative over to three rivals for Louis XV's affections as they rise and are defeated by the Marquise: Rosalie de Romanet-Choiseul, a minor countess whose beauty manages to briefly ensnare the king but whose zest for life and pleasure wins over the reader; Morphise, a conniving little child prostitute who feeds the oversexed king's need for increasingly perverse pleasures with unsettling pragmatism and wisdom for one so young and misused; and Marie-Anne de Mailly de Coislin, whose connection and resemblance to the Duchesse de Châteauroux touches the king's sentimental side but whose lack of intelligence is portrayed to hilarious effect. These misguided women are easily seduced by the glamour, wealth, and power of being Louis XV's mistress, but they each have a fatal flaw: daring to overestimate their influence by trying to unseat Pompadour. Even though these ladies were set up from the beginning to play the villains to the Marquise's heroine, the reader can't help but feel sorry for them and wish them well in their lives after Versailles.
As for the Marquise, she quickly catches on to the key to a lasting relationship with Louis XV. Allow and even aid him in his relentless pursuit of beauty and pleasure while taking on the trusted role of adviser and mother. But even so, the effort required to keep the king's attention is exhausting, as is the effort put forth by her rivals in their bid to find and mold new mistresses to place before the king in the hopes of advancing their own positions. The Marquise advanced so many friends only to have them turn on her time and time again when their greed grew too large for the bounds of friendship. The backstabbing, plotting, and maneuvering that underscores Louis XV's court is never-ending, and even though the Marquise grows increasingly weary and jaded, Versailles and her place at Louis's side have become her sole reason for being, and to give them up would be to give up her very essence.
. . . I have fought and fought, and though they may say I am victorious, what have I really won?
Even more so in this book than the first, the politics and economics of France clamor for attention. I bristled at the nobility who turned their noses up at commoners, even though they themselves were flat broke and had nothing but a title to sustain them. And one couldn't help but wish to reach through the pages and shake some sense into these thoughtless, careless courtiers who drowned themselves in such wanton excess while millions of people in France were starving and crying out for help to a king who would not listen. And increasingly those people came to unfairly view the Marquise as the source of the king's inattention and profligate spending. There is a reckoning coming, though unfortunately the weak and irresponsible Louis XV will not be the one to bear the brunt of it.
The ending of this book is extremely emotional and bittersweet. And the author's note made me hate Louis XV even more than I already did. There's a reason Madame de Pompadour has become so ingrained in the history of France and in the hearts of people throughout the ages, and Sally Christie's portrayal of Reinette will keep that fascination and admiration alive in a new generation of readers. I highly recommend this series for lovers of French history and readers who love to read about real women who make their mark on the world against all odds. This book is so complex in its many layers and in its lush depictions of court life in all its beautiful ugliness that I don't feel my review can do it justice. I can't wait to see how Christie will bring this chapter in French history and the glory days of Versailles to an end in the final book, The Enemies of Versailles.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars out of 5
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