Friday, August 31, 2012

Book review: Bride of New France, by Suzanne Desrochers

Suzanne Desrochers' Bride of New France takes an unvarnished look at the lives of the filles du roi ("king's daughters"), young women sent from France to populate its colony in Canada in the 1660s and 1670s. While not easy to like, heroine Laure Beauséjour embodies the determination and self-interest required of those who found themselves forced to endure a harsh, unforgiving land. She learns from childhood on that if she doesn't put herself first, nobody else will.

As a girl, Laure is torn from her street-performer father's arms by Louis XIV's officials, an episode which gains her immediate sympathy points. The next scene, set some years later, shows her distrust of another person's obvious suffering and steals those points right back from her. Desrochers illuminates both sides of Laure’s character throughout the book, making readers wary but fascinated observers of her fate.

Growing up in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, a notorious home for destitute, criminal, insane, and loose women, Laure is fortunate to find herself in the Sainte-Claire dormitory, where she and other "bijoux" (jewels) are trained in lace-making. After she makes the mistake of complaining to the king about their poor conditions and bad food, her dreams of becoming a seamstress to the nobility are dashed. She is told she’ll be one of 100 orphans and widows sent to New France in Canada to marry a colonist, become his helpmate, and bear French children for the realm. What she feels about this is unimportant.

Laure’s tale is spliced into three segments, organized in essence as follows: Paris and the traumatic ocean voyage to Québec; her journey to the primitive town of Ville-Marie, “the last settlement before forest completely takes over”; and her marriage to an ill-mannered coureur de bois who leaves her behind in their cabin during a rough winter with only a pig for company. While the novel isn’t quite 300 pages long, Laure's constantly changing experiences give it almost the feel of an epic.

Unlike at the Salpêtrière, Laure isn’t a prisoner in her new home, but as midwife/innkeeper Madame Rouillard tells her, “The price we pay for freedom is that we have to live here.” This beautifully described country, ruled by the fur trade and the seasons, abounds with wildlife, and members of the Algonquin and Iroquois tribes both support and threaten the colonists. Laure had already attracted unwanted attention by her unorthodox behavior aboard ship, which didn't endear her to the other women. (Given what happens to those closest to her, the distance they keep from one another is probably to their benefit.)  Her friendship and more with an Iroquois man who helps her survive makes her even more of an outcast. She is strong-minded, though, even in her impracticality. She insists on embroidering elegant Parisian-style dresses even after being told how useless they are in New France.

Although it may not be the best choice for those who need to emotionally connect with their protagonists, Bride of New France reveals an important chapter in the history of North America, especially from the female viewpoint, and is full of absorbing social history. It’s easy to see why it became a Canadian bestseller. The ramshackle town of Ville-Marie would later become known as Montréal, and the stories of its earliest pioneers are worth knowing. The conclusion demands a sequel, and fortunately, per Publishers Marketplace, one is in the works.

Bride of New France was published by Norton in the US in August at $24.95 (hardcover, 293pp, including author's note).  Penguin Canada reprinted it in trade paperback at $16.00 Canadian in January.

A contest in honor of my 700th post!  I had already bought the Canadian edition when an ARC arrived unsolicited from Norton, so I have an extra copy up for grabs.  If you'd like this practically new ARC to be yours, leave a comment on this post for a chance to win it.  Open internationally; deadline Friday, September 7th.

22 comments:

  1. Fantastic review, Sarah. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I agree with your review wholeheartedly, especially your assessment that it wouldn't be a good read for "those who need to emotionally connect with their protagonist." While I thought the book very good, especially the vividly described settings, my inability to connect with Laure kept this one from being a great read for me.

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    1. Thanks, Melissa! I just found your review again and see it took me about a year to get to this book. We're in definite agreement on it, and on Laure.

      I found it interesting that Montreal isn't mentioned anywhere by name, even in the author's note. Canadians likely already know this, but while reading, I didn't realize that we were looking at the city's earliest beginnings; I found this out afterward by googling for info on Ville-Marie.

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  2. This novel looks wonderful! Definitely different from anything I've ever read and I think that's just what I need right now. Great review as well!

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  3. This sounds like a very interesting book. My sister-in-law is descended from early Canadian pioneers, so if I should win it, it will be in her Christmas stocking.

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  4. A Canadian version of 7 brides for 7 brothers (just kidding). I would love to read this book as I know very little about early Canada. And congratulations on your 700th post!
    seknobloch(at)gmail(dot)com

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  5. Anonymous10:09 AM

    I have an ARC from PLA - haven't read it yet but gave it to my mom and she is enjoying it. Another 17th century title . . .

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. I am really liking all of these 17th-century titles too.

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    2. Anonymous12:49 PM

      And I just remembered THE RUINS OF LACE - 17th century France, lacemakers . . . does this constitute a trend?

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  6. I would love to win this ARC - I was already jumping to Goodreads to put this book on my TBR list when I got to the end of your post...

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  7. From what I have read studying these forced emigrations in connection with those sent to New Orleans by the Duc d'Orléans, most of the women who survived the voyages and the first weeks on land, managed to get themselves back to Paris asap.

    Love, C.

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    1. Can't blame them, based on what I've read from this book and elsewhere. Have you read Clare Clark's Savage Lands, about the earliest French settlers of Louisiana? I reviewed it two years ago; I was emotionally disconnected from its heroine as well, but found Bride of New France much more readable in comparison.

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  8. This sounds like an interesting read about a part of North American History I know little about. Would love to read this one.

    tmrtini at gmail dot com

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  9. Tiffany4:53 PM

    I have been interested in the history of Montreal ever since I read Elizabeth George Spear's "Calico Captive." I saw your review and I think this book looks really interesting! I will keep my fingers crossed that I win!
    Thanks so much for having the giveaway!

    kohlert at mail dot gvsu dot edu

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    1. I haven't heard of Calico Captive before but will check it out!

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    2. Anonymous1:47 PM

      Oh wow, a blast from my past - I read that book YEARS ago (not divulging any specific numbers) and it was one of my favorites growing up.

      Sarah Other Librarian

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  10. Thanks everyone for commenting, and good luck!

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  11. No, alas, I have read that one. For all the usual reasons of not enough time!

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    1. Believe me, I understand :)

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  12. I read this one too and also enjoyed it a great deal. I felt like it only told part of the story but now I understand that there is a sequel in the works....I should have realized that!

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    1. After reading the last page, I went onto Publishers Marketplace because I thought I'd remembered a deal for a sequel... and it was there (yay). I'll read it. Spring 2014, though, from Penguin Canada - a long time away! Film rights were just sold too.

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  13. I'll pass on the book, but can't pass on congratulating you on the 700th post.

    What that is, is a lot of hard work.

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