The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. Hardcover – Mar 14 2012
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"I lost myself whole-heartedly in [Eugénie's] story, and would have followed her down any narrow alley, into any candlelit room, just to know what happened, to stay back there and to delay coming home." —Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress
"A sweeping, fascinating epic full of drama and beauty."—Publishers Weekly
"The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is as much a personal meditation on women’s emotional and professional tradeoffs as it is a sweeping saga of the decadent Paris that spawned Madame Bovary. … Don’t read this fiercely intelligent novel if you simply want a good love story dressed up in period clothes. Read it for the complex sexual politics, lush language, and mirror onto our own excessive, heedless times."—Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger
"The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is an arresting tale of what it meant to survive as a woman in 19th-century France. With spare, powerful prose Carole DeSanti's debut novel paints an unflinching portrait of love and loss against a landscape of Parisian decadence." — Deborah Harkness, author of A Discovery of Witches
"Epic times make for epic books. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is both sweeping in scope and painstaking in detail. Eugénie R.'s story, from naive goosegirl to resilient survivor, makes for wonderful, suspenseful reading, but tumultuous Paris is equally compelling, laid out here by DeSanti in all her grisly or gorgeous glory." — Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
"Against a carefully recreated landscape of France and the City of Lights during the 1860s, with the Prussian army heading for Paris, DeSanti brings a 21st-century sensitivity for the plight and passions of women in her rendering of Eugénie and the women and men she comes to travel (and drink) among." —Mireille Guiliano, internationally best-selling author of French Women Don’t Get Fat
"Reading The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is like entering a lush dream filled with beauty and brutality. This astonishing debut is a panoramic story of war and peace, love and betrayal, innocence and hard-won wisdom, told through the eyes of a compelling woman who kept me at her side through it all." —Lauren Belfer, author of A Fierce Radiance
"So richly and sensuously drawn one can almost feel it . . . Perhaps if [Eugénie's] contemporary, Emma Bovary, had possessed the ingenuity, wit, and tenacity of Eugénie R., Madame B. wouldn’t have had to take that arsenic." — Valerie Martin, author of The Confessions of Edward Day
"Lord! This is a great piece of work. How beautifully this is written. How rare that is to discover on the page." — Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out Of Carolina
"A magnificent novel in scope and achievement, powerfully written yet delicately evocative." — Fay Weldon
About the Author
Carole DeSanti is a longtime book editor and champion of new voices in fiction. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and the Women's Review of Books . Visit www.caroledesanti.net.See all Product Description
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Eugenie R., a teenager from a remote farming village, is sent to Paris by her lover, a count. When he does not show up to meet her, she finds herself penniless, pregnant and at the mercy of a sprawling and dangerous city filled with predatory brothels, corrupt police, and selfish artists, businessmen and aristocrats, and criminals, with only other prostitutes to rely on.
How Eugenie survives life as a prostitute, modeling for an artist, and as a secretary for an upper-class brothel is a gripping story. The author's descriptions of Eugenie's emotions and adventures, the food, the clothes, the smells, the weather, the gardens, the buildings, the streets, the bawdy dinner parties, the war with Germany -- you feel that you are there with Eugenie. This novel cries out to be filmed.
My only complaints about the novel are very minor -- first, the author goes a little too easy on the political radicals who fought for the French Commune faction during the 1871 civil war -- they weren't quite as nice as the author portrays them, in my opinion. The author tends to take their side each time they appear in the novel, whereas I don't think they were always on the side of the angels.
Second, even though I am moderately well-acquainted with the history of the era, and the author carefully fills in historical details so all readers can keep up, I had to look up names and events in two chapters to get a better sense of what exactly was going on.
But these are very minor complaints. You don't need to know French or French history to follow Eugenie's roller-coaster and sometimes scary journey as she struggles to find a social niche where she can survive.
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.
Terrible error of judgment are made by the government of Napoleon III, a doomed war with Mexico, the declaration of war by France on Prussia, the bombardment of Paris and its eventual capitulation. It is in this chaotic landscape that Eugenie attempts to gain control of her fate, though she is forced to abandon her beloved daughter when she can no longer care for the infant, even with the assistance of her friends. Life is lived on the fringes by such women, outcasts in a rigid society that restricts opportunity, choice circumscribed by documents as final as a prison sentence. With a deft hand, the author weaves Eugenie's struggles, her small triumphs as an artist's muse and companion of a wealthy southerner in the American Civil War seeking financial aid in Paris, her tenacious hold on existence during the fall of the empire, a flirtation with a revolutionary and Eugenie's unflagging attempts to reunite with her daughter.
As surely as Paris moves inexorably toward revolution, Eugenie learns the fallacy of hesitation, the danger of clinging to the past ("I had the first shuddering sensation of my own particular folly."). Barred from ever earning her keep in acceptable society, Eugenie adapts to conditions, embraced by a fraternity of those in similar predicaments in a scathing portrayal of the marginal choices of such women. Eugenie sheds her innocence along with Paris, maturing with the city as times demand courage and bravery, the early days etched into her scarred heart, love of her child, the fruit of her foolish passion, driving one who might otherwise give in to despair. Her heroine mirroring the revolution sweeping through Paris, Desanti creates a powerful reenactment of an extraordinary period, from absinthe-soaked dreams to the bloody streets of battle, from the headiness of first romance to a baby's hungry wail, from the smoky rooms of a brothel to a small apartment where a girl-become-woman pens her story. Luan Gaines/2012.
Eugenie's story is a common one. A poor goose girl is seduced and abandoned by a minor aristocrat, and then sent to Paris where life is much harder than it should be. She falls into awful circumstances, living in poverty and selling her body for other people's profit. It is all very terrible.
Then she escapes the brothel, and there are many many pages of descriptions of life in Paris, introducing many confusing characters who come and go. Eugenie betters her situation, usually by cooperating with the very people who mistreated her. Then there is a very confusing war, which is described in a way that was difficult to follow. After 10 or 12 years, Eugenie goes on a quest to find her missing daughter, who she never actually meets, and tries to reconcile with her mother who dies without forgiving her. I found the ending most unsatisfying.
I am not sure what "unruly passions" the title refers to. I don't think Eugenie actually loved the scoundrel who abandoned her, the artist who dismissed her, the roommate who seduced her, the confederate landowner hiding his homosexuality, or the revolutionary soldier who seemed to lack a distinct personality. She used these people, and they used her, and whatever feelings she had for them seemed more practical than unruly. As for the missing daughter who haunted her throughout the story, well that would have been interesting if we had ever met the girl, but she remained a mystery right up until the end.
The thing that bugged me most about this book was how darned difficult it was to read. It is peppered throughout with French words, to the point where whole sentences are incomprehensible unless you can read French. There is a glossary in the back, but most of the words I stumbled on weren't in the glossary. For example, there is a brothel named "Deux Soeurs" which is mentioned repeatedly. Google translates it to "two sisters". It would have been nice to get that information without having to look it up on Google.
I am willing to read a difficult book if there is a good story in it. This one was over-written and unsatisfying, and a lot of it read like stream-of-consciousness rambling with no particular point. I only finished it because I felt a duty as a Vine reviewer, but now that I am done, I kind of wish I had spent those hours doing something else.
I gave up about 20% through and I'm not going back there again. Life is too short, and I've got too many books I want to read. I'll throw out a couple of quotes as an example so other readers can decide if this is the book for them or not.
"She was once part of earth, the moon. But earth turned too fast for the heaviness inside her. A bulge formed and earth began to list and wobble."
"His scent of earth; of linseed oil and iron. Two hundred stairsteps into the sky I shed my shattered self, breathed in moments, one to the next. My present cure, the coiling, bone-melting green; his arms now around my body, ever warmer in a room full of windows, seven winding stories above the street."
"A jolt, and our movement ceased; the scent of late roses swelling into the closed warmth of the carriage. The night air smelled like mown hay, flowers, and rushing water all mingled together."
"The light shifted, a shaft of wintry light-against-light: dove gray, pink, bluish. Nearby an old couple dozed in two chairs, pooled in the circle of pale sun."
Just not my cuppa tea. Note: I received an ARC from Amazon Vine (yes, I still have that copy), but the quotes are taken from a finished copy obtained via library loan (kindle copies being easier to quote from).