In 1669, five letters, supposedly written by a Portuguese nun, were published in Paris. They spoke of heartbreak at the desertion of a French lover after a passionate affair. The letters were a resounding success in French polite and literary society, and almost immediately sparked a controversy. Were they really the anguished cries of a scorned woman or the work of a talented male writer desperate for employment? Cyr, a stage and screen actress, claims—contra most scholars—that Mariana Alcoforado, the daughter of a rich and influential family, wrote the letters to the dashing French officer Chamilly after he returned to France. The story is fascinating, and Cyr does a good job of setting the context of 17th-century Portuguese and French life, explaining the role of convents in social and commercial realms as well as the international politics that brought Chamilly to Portugal. It's clear that Cyr did extensive research; she is not, however, a writer or a historian. Though her account is compelling and plausible, proof of Mariana's authorship, or even that she had an affair with Chamilly, remains circumstantial at best, and Cyr's argument rests on her own strong response to the sentiments in the letters. (Jan. 11)
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In 1669, a Parisian bookseller published a volume of love letters that took Paris by storm. Purportedly written by a Portuguese nun to a French officer, they detailed a forbidden love affair so passionate it captured the imagination of an entire nation. Although debate remained as to the identity, sex, and status--an impoverished writer, perhaps?--of the author, the letters themselves touched a collective chord in the hearts and the minds of the literati. Centuries later, Cyr traces the origins of the letters to Mariana Alcoforado, the cloistered daughter of a Portuguese aristocrat. As the tale of the star-crossed lovers unfolds, one gets the sense that Cyr is more caught up in the possibilities of a romantic love story than in actually authenticating the authorship of the letters. Margaret Flanagan
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