Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Book review: The General's Mistress, by Jo Graham

The nondescript title of Jo Graham’s fourth novel fits her heroine, a Dutch courtesan who becomes the lover, in turn, of three generals of the French Republic. However, Elzelina Ringeling would stand out as unique and memorable whatever one chooses to call her.

After discovering her indifferent husband married her for her dowry, Elza flees Amsterdam for Paris, in disguise as her late brother Charles. She agrees to become General Victor Moreau’s mistress if he’ll serve as her protector. Although their liaison satisfies her material needs and passionate nature, the red-haired man she had once glimpsed in a tarot reading continues to occupy her thoughts.

Elza adopts the name Ida St. Elme, “for the fire that illuminates everything and yet is nothing but illusion.” Her fortunes rise and fall, but with her beauty and wit, she’s never alone for long. Her path leads her to the theatre, to the world of the occult, and into the arms of a surprisingly attractive First Consul Bonaparte before she encounters her soul mate, Michel Ney, a man who accepts her for herself – her cross-dressing habits included. The expressive rendering of their supernatural connection gives the novel a haunting flavor, although references to their past lives may confuse readers unfamiliar with Graham’s previous books.

On one level, the novel reads as an entertaining and sexy fictional biography of a real-life adventuress who reveals her love affairs, life in post-revolutionary Parisian society, and excitement in following the French army. More than that, though, it’s a thoughtful exploration of the meaning of personal freedom. The General’s Mistress presents a world sailing bravely into the modern age, with Elza/Ida as its compass. With her determination to chart her own future, one feels she could inhabit our time as readily as her own.

The General's Mistress was published this month by Gallery at $16.00, or $18.99 in Canada (trade pb, 381pp).  This review first appeared in November's Historical Novels Review.  I enjoyed the read, and it also gave me a new appearance by Mme RĂ©camier to add to the cover art gallery.

14 comments:

  1. I just got done reading this not too long ago and while it was a little too 'romancy' for me, it still was a good story.

    Kimberlee
    http://girllostinabook.blogspot.com

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    1. I'm inclined to call it highly erotic - the sex scenes are numerous and leave nothing out (whew!). For me it fit with her role and personality, though I know it won't be to everyone's taste.

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  2. Anonymous9:32 AM

    I do love that Napoleonic period, which is getting more attention nowadays what with Lauren willig and Tracy Grant and Michelle Moran's latest (although she took historical liberties which did not fit with Marie Louise's life).

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. This is certainly a different perspective on the Napoleonic era than I've seen before (this is all to the good). I haven't read Michelle's latest novel, though I was glad to see she had written about Marie Louise. She often gets pushed into the background behind Josephine.

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    2. Anonymous6:46 PM

      The author has Marie Louise meet Count Neipperg much earlier than she actually did. That's all I'll say.

      Sarah Other Librarian

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    3. That sounds familiar. I may have read something to that effect on Goodreads.

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  3. Anonymous1:17 PM

    According to the clinical psychologist, Dr. Albert Bernstein (Emotional Vampires), courtesans are a type of sociopath (person afflicted with Anti-social personality disorder). Sociopaths are characterized by having a glib, superficial charm, tendency to break rules, tendency to have addictions (like gambling and sex), have a high need for stimulation, are highly impulsive. Essentially, courtesans are addicted to excitement.

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    1. I'm not familiar with Dr. Bernstein's work, but this was the early 19th-century we're talking about. Most women who were courtesans didn't become rich men's mistresses because they wanted to. It was the means to an end, and I'd hardly call the main character of this book a sociopath.

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    2. Anonymous5:41 PM

      Since time immemorial, courtesans were far more than mere prostitutes; they collected powerful and creative males, messed with their minds, and inspired them to actions they might not have considered on their own. According to one reviewer on Goodreads, "She (Elza) escapes a conventional life and finds herself thrust into a world of sex, violence, and theatrics." Another one says, "the book contains a rather large dose of sex that includes some elements of dominance without going to S&M types of things." That all sounds like the provenance of Anti-social personality disorder to me. It's not out of the realm of possibility for a main character to have a personality disorder. The great Scarlett O'Hara is a classic Histrionic. Don't these characters' human quirks make tham all the more loveable?

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  4. I had a hard time getting in to this, don't know why, but it could have to do worth the feeling that I was missing something. I didn't realize there were other books, and although it's meant to stand alone, I think I would have liked our better having known the back story.

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  5. Yes - I've read her first novel, Black Ships, and some of its characters reappeared in the reincarnation scenes of this one. There are two additional books, Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire, and not having read them, I didn't connect with those references.

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  6. Anonymous2:26 PM

    "The General’s Mistress presents a world sailing bravely into the modern age, with Elza/Ida as its compass."

    I think this sentence says a lot about the appeal of this particular period - I also feel this way about large parts of the 17th century. There's a fundamental contrast/conflict going on in the setting which provides for lots of personal drama. Thanks for articulating it!

    BTW I did read the book after reading the review and I am looking forward to the sequel.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. You have a knack for picking up on the sentences I've spent the most time thinking about (something I appreciate!). Elza really was a character whose outlook was quite modern, although she was also very much a product of her time.

      I'll happily read the sequel, too.

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    2. Anonymous9:29 AM

      Yes we make a good team - you write the reviews and I pick out the "money quote"!

      Sarah Other Librarian

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