Years before Madame de Maitenon opened her school of gallantry, she met the love of her life during the French Revolution. This is the story of their youthful affair and how they came to be reunited.
This is a difficult book for me to review. If I came to it with no baggage, I think I'd give it a solid A. As always with Marvelle's books, the characters are fascinating and the dialogue is sharp and entertaining. Furthermore, we have the Marquis de Sade running around being on who can tell whose side and generally entertaining. What's not to love?
On the other hand, I do have baggage. I have baggage about portrayals of the French Revolution in fiction and I have baggage in reference to the Romance genre, Marvelle's previous work, and my expectations for this book. And because of my baggage, there are lots of things that bother me. One is simply that, like most fiction about the French Revolution that I've read, it takes place in what I call the Charles Dickens French Revolution. There are only two groups in political terms, royalists and revolutionaries, and although some of the royalists are evil bastard aristocrats and some are good patriots, none of the revolutionaries are motivated by anything but bloodthirstiness and even people who disapprove of conditions under the Ancien Regime become royalists rather than a different faction of republican when confronted with any act of violence in the name of the Republic. This book was actually better than most in that it made a passing mention of the facts that the Revolutionary government freed the slaves in France, gave men and women equal divorce rights, and gave Jews the full rights of French citizens, although if you didn't have any other information you'd wonder why these things happened since nobody in power in the Republic seems to have any political ideals separate from their bloodlust and, well, actual lust. But I'm not certain I've seen any English language fiction other than Susanne Alleyn's that does any differently, and I keep reading it even though I keep longing for something else.
Secondly, there's a combination of my expectations for this book and baggage from the romance genre in general. I've accumulated that baggage from Marvelle almost as much as from any other author, as she's one of my favorites, but there are still things that bother you the tenth time you read them even if they may not have the first time. Firstly, pre-publication this book was described as a sweeping saga, which I read to mean that it would follow Madame de Maitenon from the French Revolution through 1830, not spend seventy-five percent of the book in the former and then jump to the latter. Ok, that was probably a misunderstanding on my part and I realized I was probably mistaken when I saw that it wasn't considerably longer than other books in the series.
Aside from that, the rest of it can be summed up as: this book isn't as edgy as it thinks it is. Yes, Madame de Maitenon was a courtesan, but none of her relationships with men apart from Andelot ever appear on the page. Her brief engagement with Lord Hughes is clearly not based on a romantic relationship. Not only does that mean there's no real tension in the last quarter of the book, but it means that we never see her enjoying sex or romance with anybody but the love of her life. (I realize I'm rather ignoring Andelot here, even though the book is named after him, but let's be honest: Madame de Maitenon has been fascinating since she first appeared at the beginning of Mistress of Pleasure, while Andelot appeared later in the series as a mysterious, shadowy subplot.) She's been conventionalized as much as she can be while still having been a courtesan off-page. There's also vague rumors about Andelot tying women up in a London brothel for purposes of setting up the next, related series. Andelot reveals that this is actually not true, he is apparently good with elaborate knots but hasn't tied any women up in fifteen years. So there's a hint of kink that, apart from providing a link to the upcoming Whipping Society series, doesn't actually do anything except provide the bit of kink that is apparently now mandatory in any romance with explicit sexual content because I guess vanilla isn't interesting enough, but *without* Andelot actually being a kinky person who actually is tying up those women. That plot element needed to get off the fence. Like I said, not as edgy as it thinks it is.
Clearly, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found maddening. I also didn't want to put it down. Overall, I think I have to let my two competing opinions meet in the middle and call it a confusing B.