Piercy's fiction/nonfiction account of the French revolution has high ambitions, and she achieves them--partly. Piercy views this momentous event through the eyes of six people, all of whom are historical characters, but the amount of historical information about each varies greatly. She starts at the top with Nicholas, Danton, and Robespierre, representing the enlightened aristocrat, the pragmatic revolutionary, and the extreme radical. Next on her list is Manon Roland, the wife of a mediocre beaurocrat who exercises influence and power through her husband. Last but certainly not least are Claire and Pauline, two women who led the women's revolution, driven to the streets by the lack of the basic necessities of life--bread, wine, meat--and a desire for equality.
Piercy excels in describing the everyday details of the lives of these people, and makes Danton and Robespierre human. Her portrayal of the Paris of the time, the teeming streets, the houses of the poor, the entertainments, the struggle for food--is masterful. In the cases of Pauline and Claire, she took the little that is known about them and developed them into strong, powerful women.
But Piercy also struggles under the weight of information she tries to incorporate into this "novel," and the result is often plodding. She is a masterful novelist, and "Gone to Soldiers" is a wonderful example of what she can do with a good story that has a historical background. But here she tries to do way too much--explain the politics, the history and life of the time, and also accurately render historical figures in a fictional way while being faithful to the facts we do know. The first third of the book is a chore, as she tries to set everything up for the characters to come together in Paris. It is no accident that her best characters are Claire and Pauline, about whom little is known, and who come alive under her wonderful novelist's pen. The three men are rendered more clumsily, especially when she tries to describe their feelings during historical events. And Manon is a failure--I suspect Piercy got bogged down in trying to be faithful to the autobiography this woman left behind. As the revolution picks up steam, the story does too, but I found myself reading along to find out how they all get out of the mess that they've created, rather than out of real feeling for the characters.
Having said all that, this book does send you back to brush up on the history, and also sparked a very lively discussion in my book club about why the American Revolution was so different. Was it because the English had a much longer tradition of democracy? Was it that a lot of tradition and custom that hampered change had been left behind in the Old World? Or was it because there was no need to take property away from the rich--there were limitless opportunities available to anyone willing to push west and start out fresh on his own land. Probably all of the above.