Review: L'Allée du roi by Françoise Chandernagor
Fret not, my lovely non-French speakers - there is an English translation available of this book, although you do have to hunt for it a bit as the book was originally published and translated in 1981. You can browse for it here.
This is a historical fiction, presented as the memoirs of Françoise d'Aubigné, marquise de Maintenon, whom urban legend has it was Louis XIV's second wife, though the marriage was morganatic and she was never acknowledged as Queen of France. I've talked before about how much I don't like books that are set over the entire period of a character's life, but I think the fact that Chandernagor set this book up as a fictionalised memoir neatly sidestepped the difficulty of keeping the momentum going and the stakes high in a novel that doesn't have a distinct timeframe. Setting this book up as a memoir meant that we could just skip the low points in the story, and replace them with a few pages of philosophizing and musing, a tactic that works much better in the memoirist's hands than a first-person narrator's.
Right, now that I've gotten the framing device out of the way, let's properly talk about this book.
It's one of those weird novels where I really, really loved the writing, and thought the author was a master of her craft and her story, and I wanted to love the book in its entirety, but I just had a bit too difficult of a time getting immersed by the characters to properly love the complete picture of the book. The plot didn't really pick up until the last one hundred pages or so, when Mme de Maintenon is reflecting on the difficulties of the end of Louis XIV's reign, when she started weaving more of the politics and intrigue of the age into her own memoirs, so while I raced through the last few chapters, the first part of the book felt like a lot of context-building, with maybe limited ways of getting real immersed in the story. The names were sometimes a bit hard to keep track of, as well - everyone is referred to by their titles, and people move in and out of the narrative so much that it's already difficult to keep on top of who is who, and then when they start referring to each other by their extremely convoluted family ties, you can forget it. Even the footnotes didn't really help keep things straight. I also wish we could have gotten a bit more about her relationship with the King, since we only get to see that in bits and pieces, and occasionally through flashbacks, but that was the relationship that I was the most curious about and the most excited to read about through Mme de Maintenon's eyes and felt like I got left a bit with my hunger on that front.
Now that we've established the cons, let's talk about what I really liked in this novel. My grandmother and I, while we were discussing it, decided it was a well-worked novel - it's very obvious, throughout all 600 pages, that Chandernagor did an awful lot of research and an awful lot of planning so that her language and writing style would mimic the style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (also, the last 100 pages of the printed edition is her references and her bibliography; you see some actual history books with less references). And the character study of Mme de Maintenon is beautifully well done, richly-nuanced, deeply thoughtful and philosophical and profound (the studies of the other characters in the novel, unfortunately, fall a bit short when compared to that of the central personage).
It was really refreshing to see a Mme de Maintenon presented in a very different light than urban legend has it. She's gone down in the French collective memory as the complete opposite to her foil, Mme de Montespan - devoutly Catholic, prudish, quiet, utterly self-effacing; but in this retelling, Mme de Maintenon is shrewd, ambitious, with a hefty dose of manipulative and strategic, and, perhaps most importantly, never satisfied with what she's got and just as willing to change her views to religion to suit her own desires as the archetype has her rigidly, and unforgivably, Catholic. Obviously, since this novel is presented as a memoirs, Maintenon is much more forgiving towards herself than a third-person narrator would be. And the complexities of her character, her willingness to do just about anything to save her own skin and accumulate power for power's sake - which is, I think, one of the most interesting things about this book; Maintenon doesn't actually do anything with her power once she's the King's wife); it all adds up to paint what would be, in another novel, probably be the main villain. But seeing Maintenon's potential villainy as she paints herself in the best possible light of her memoirs made for a fascinating narration that was almost like a trick mirror, or a high stakes version of cat-and-mouse, so that the entirety of the book was spent a bit on edge and wondering whether or not Mme de Maintenon is a reliable narrator.
All told, this is a well-written, well-researched, well-worked book that makes you think, and challenges you throughout the entirety of the novel both because of its language, and because of its narration and character study. It's one of the best 'character study' novels I've ever read, and if you like historical fiction that challenges you a bit, and that you have to work for a little more than usual to get the immersive quality of historical fiction, then this is definitely the book for you - plus you'll come out of it having actually learned something, and most of the chapters end on great little zingers that you can put in your pocket for the next time you need to put a man in his place.