After finishing this harrowing and intriguing historical novel and then reading the advanced reviews by various women writers and other women from the groves of Academe, I was struck by the fact that this book seems, at least, to be destined to be read and reviewed only by a small coterie of women in Women's Studies programs here in the States. This, were it to be borne out after the novel's release date, would be a terrible waste. The novel casts an unwavering, highly focussed light upon the demise of France's Second Empire and the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, especially the plight of women therein. This is much-neglected territory in Anglo-American writing, in which 19th Century Paris is always the static "City of Light." It's very curious also that the war which finally unified Germany is neglected in most histories. The novel puts the lie to this misconception and this omission in a most poignant fashion.
The story is a Bildungsroman of Eugénie Rigault, an attractive, provincial "goose-girl" who finds her way to Paris via an elopement which turns out rather badly for her - understatement - because "...love's demands were too great, too rigorous for our weak souls. Neither our circumstances, nor our character (sic, in the ARC), were equal to what loved asked of us." Thereupon follows a devastating account of Eugénie's fall into prostitution, the loss of her daughter to the orphanage and various other misfortunes, though it is convincingly impressed upon the reader that Eugénie's fate is not so bad as it could have been, as in fact it was for thousands of girls just like her. She could have starved to death in the streets.
The narrative didn't really pick up for me until our heroine met her first Sapphic love, "Jolie" (French frisson, but I'll return to my problem with the language employed.) who remained my favourite character in the book until she drops out, fate unknown, towards the end.
Between times, Eugénie's life in the milieu of Paris as the war approaches is deftly sketched so that, by the time Eugénie departs on the, quite literally, never-ending search for her daughter, the reader feels as if he has been living in Paris with her, and knows the sights, sounds, smells quite intimately.
The writing came across to me as a bit uneven until the end, where it is enthrallingly poignant. At times, it reaches to levels of high art: "But it was the usual thing, one way of living slipping and slithering into the next; edges blurred but before you knew it, you were in another picture, another kind of story." If only this depiction of life rang consistently true in DeSanti's narrative, which is full of, it seems to me, unwarranted and off-putting skips and jumps. My other problem is DeSanti's use of French. Generally, I should say, if you're going to write a novel in English, albeit set in France, stick to English if at all possible save where the terms have historical merit or have absolutely no English equivalent. Naming the heroine's lover "Jolie" and using "Noël" for Christmas in sentences like: "We'll be handing out hams on the street at Noël." adds a preciosity to the work which tends to rankle. The word "Christmas" does not even appear in the novel, though "hams" is used along with "charcuterie"(not in glossary) seemingly arbitrarily. A novel shouldn't need a glossary of French terms at the end. My French turns out to have been good enough to skate through to the end without even noticing there was a glossary until turning the final pages. I'm very much afraid that this willy-nilly employment of French is bound to come across as, ahem, outré to many a reader. But, then, I have only the ARC. Perhaps, one hopes, things will have changed somewhat by release date.
During one of Eugénie's (DeSanti's) self-referential meditations upon telling this story, she asks: "Does the story, in the way it is told, open a window into the soul's fortress or place yet another stone to block the view?" Regarding this story, it seems to me impossible to say yea or nay definitively. Bit it is a sad, poignant well-researched novel, apparently ten years in the composing, which does open a window and let in the light and air of an epoch and the plight of the women therein which has been arrantly neglected.
No small feat, this.