Monday, October 23, 2006

A couple brief announcements, and a short trip to Versailles

Took the afternoon off to work on my Janette Oke read-alike article for NoveList and, I'm pleased to report, it's finally done. Three months after it was first assigned (sigh). The goal for these is to analyze the appeal of an author's writing, then provide a list of five authors who write in a similar style - and explain why their novels would appeal to the first author's fans. Now I sit and await suggestions for revisions.

I also got the reviews for November's HNS editors' choice books online, now that the issue's at the printer. Of this list, I've read the Frazier and the Koen; the latter, I finished over the weekend and enjoyed, though I wouldn't say it was one of my favorites of the year. But it did interest me in the court of Louis XIV, and specifically to pick up - on impulse - another novel of the period that I've had sitting on my bookshelf far too long. And which, as it turns out, I enjoyed even more.

Alice Acland's The Secret Wife (St. Martin's, 1975) is a deceptively short biographical novel about Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, who becomes the morganatic wife of Louis XIV when they're both middle-aged. Told in the form of a fictional memoir, it begins in Françoise's poverty-ridden youth, when she abandons her family's Huguenot beliefs for Catholicism out of political necessity. Her uneasy relationship with Madame de Montespan, the king's official mistress, occupies a fair amount of the plot. Drawn against her will to the king's inner circle, Françoise becomes the guardian of her patroness's bastard children by the king, and later - to everyone's surprise, hers most of all - she manages to attract and hold the attention of the king himself. She becomes his secret wife, but despite this close relationship, she's never treated as his equal. Nor does she expect to be.

All of the characters are well-drawn, from major ones like Mme de Montespan and Louis XIV down to the king's coarse-mouthed but colorful German sister-in-law, called simply Madame. Because Acland stays entirely within her protagonist's head, one never gets to see how Françoise's sobering influence affects the ribald royal court, for instance, yet she's a sympathetic and compelling narrator of her own life story. There are a few small liberties taken with chronology (Acland includes an author's note), and all but one of the characters appears in the historical record. This is an excellent example of biographical fiction, and a painless way of learning more about French history. I finished it in less than 24 hours, which for me lately is some sort of record.

Now on to the first of my two 600-pp review books. With this one and the Donati under my belt, I should be quite the expert on the War of 1812 soon.


  1. I'm sure many readers will appreciate your efforts on the read-alike list. Our library back in Virginia did that for its patrons and I asked for help twice and saved the lists the librarians made up for me. Their efforts didn't include analyzing the one author's works, but ran along the lines of "If you liked ____, then you might also enjoy ___, ___, and ___."

    Nice to hear that you liked Koen's book. It's at our library, but I keep passing it up. I waited 20 years for her to write the ending/sequel to her first book, and I'm afraid I've just finally lost interest in reading another book by her.

    On another note, partly because of your favorable words about Frazier's new book I bought it on CD to listen to as I drove from VA to AL today. Eleven hours of driving and I wasn't able to finish it, but (thankfully) I'd checked the book out of the library last week before I went on the road and had it here at home so I plan to stay up tonight and read so that maybe I can finish it. (Wow! What a long, gloppy string of words! I'm still a little punchy from hours of straight driving.) I'm glad I bought it, and I think I may want to go ahead and buy the print copy, too.

  2. Hi Laura, have you read Koen's Now Face to Face? I didn't care for it as much as her first novel, but Dark Angels is better, fortunately. It reads quickly, despite the length.

    I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on the Frazier audiobook. I rarely read books that way (my commute is about 3 minutes, and I usually listen to music on longer trips) but for that one in particular, where "voice" is so important, I imagine it would depend so much on the reading abilities of the narrator. That is a long trip!

  3. No, I didn't read Now Face to Face (okay, so it was ten years I waited, not 20!), probably because I eagerly watched for a sequel for about six years or so, then forgot about it. Then couldn't muster up the interest to go back to those characters.

    I don't usually listen to audiobooks because I am too picky about voices - and abridging. While on the earlier part of our trip, my friend Meg brought out a Kellerman book on CD and we listened to it. Don't know who read it, but when he read the women's dialog it always made me picture a transvestite talking, and was very disconcerting.

    Thirteen Moons was read by Will Patton, and I'm impressed with his reading. Occasionally I'll listen to PBS stations that carry anything read by Dick Estell. I'll listen to ANYTHING he reads. He's got a reading voice that apppeals to me. And not only will I listen to him read, but almost without fail, I also go out and buy the books he reads after hearing him read them.

  4. I, too, enjoyed Dark Angels. For me, it was a solidly good read, though I had quibbles.

    Reading it prompted me to go back to Through a Glass Darkly. I remember enjoying it, all those years ago, though again, I had quibbles. (I always have quibbles!) I never tried Now Face to Face. Not sure why. Maybe I shall one day.

    On the hist. nonfic front, I'm quite sure you already know about Love and Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser. The link is to the recent NY Times review.

  5. Funny comments about the Kellerman narrator reading women's dialog. I've only listened to one audiobook all the way through, and that was for William Least-Heat Moon's Blue Highways. I listened to that on a long drive back/forth from Ohio to Michigan many years ago (on 11 cassettes). The reader spoke the way I'd imagine the author would - it was perfect.

    Margaret, thanks for the link to the Fraser review. I've heard of her book but hadn't seen the NYT piece before - maybe I can persuade my library to buy it!

    The good thing about Dark Angels is that you don't have to have read either of the other two books first. I have a hard time remembering many details on characters/plots long after I've read a book, but I did glance through Through a Glass Darkly after I'd finished.

  6. Anonymous6:52 PM

    The novel about Madame de Maintenon sounds very good. I read a different one about four years ago by a French lady and I cannot remember the name or the title. It was a biographical memoir-type novel and I read it nights while I was pregnant. Around 3am the baby would kick and wake me up and so I would read about Louis XIV and his ladies until sleep overtook me. Madame de Maintenon is one of my favorite ladies of Versailles and hers is a very romantic story, especially how she got the upper hand with Louis XIV.

  7. That sounds like Françoise Chandernagor's The King's Way, which does follow a similar format, but is a lengthier novel and more obviously a fictionalized memoir. It's been a long time since I read it.

  8. Anonymous8:56 AM

    Yes, Sarah, that sounds like the one!