Review – The Rivals of Versailles

Christie’s debut ‘The Sisters of Versailles’ was a surprising hit for me last year, so I picked up the second installment with some giddiness. After all, the first book was about a family of sisters who all caught the king’s eye (what a coincidence); this one was about Madame de Pompadour, one of the most famous and influential royal mistresses of all time. This was scandalous and familiar ground—there should be plenty of intrigue and glamour involved in the book!

And to some degree, Christie did manage this. I really enjoyed her descriptions of clothing and decor for this book, particularly anything to do with Pompadour’s wardrobe and her many rooms/houses. It was lavishly described so that I could picture the wealth that the 0.01% was wallowing in during the 18th century, but not so lavishly described that it detracted from the rest of the book. Overall there was an addictive quality to Christie’s writing, where she managed to be both engaging and fun in imparting historical facts and examining the middle years of Louis XV’s reign. (Well, by reign I really meant his relationship with women, particularly his various mistresses.)

Another thing that I was pleasantly surprised was Christie’s choice to include multiple POVs; I initially believed that it would only feature Madame de Pompadour as the POV character.  It allowed characters to be painted in a different light, and I think Christie did a fabulous job using multiple POVs to show the supporting cast (aka the scheming courtiers of Versailles) was also three-dimensional individuals.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Christie’s choice of narrators. Aside from Madame de Pompadour, I found all the other narrators (who were all Pompadour’s ‘rivals’) rather unworthy. When reading the authors notes about her choice of the other mistresses that Madame de Pompadour had to ‘compete’ with, it made sense as they offered a new perspective in the very complex relationship of Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV or it was at a pivotal moment in Madame de Pompadour’s life. But instead of using the multiple narrators to her advantage to create worthy (or not so worthy but still human) rivals for Madame de Pompadour, one of the narrators was a undiagnosed sex addict (who actually claimed in the book that she undid the king’s breeches by accident due to habits), a fool who could not stop prattling most charmingly, and an actual child. While it might be historically accurate that none of these other mistresses could hold a flame to Madame de Pompadour (she did reign over Louis XV and France for nineteen years) it made unsatisfying reading as I slogged through three sections that offered some insight to the increasing depravity of Louis XV but always unsurprised at each of the mistresses’ downfall. I was actually quite surprised about Madame de Pompadour’s paranoia that she displayed from time to time in the book because none of them seem like they could ever match her, let alone surpass her in terms of characterization and complexity.

Out of the three secondary mistresses, my favourite by far was Morphise as it explains a lot about the system of the procurement of young girls for Louis XV. She was also the only narrator that I could understand why the character was absolutely ignorant about everything. Morphise was rather fascinating and I wished that her section would extend beyond her tenure as one of Louis’s flings. In the first book while I did not love all the sisters I always could understand them and appreciate them as complex individuals; in this book I could only see Madame de Pompadour and Morphise as realistic amongst the four narrators. If not for the less than stellar narrators in the middle, I probably could have finished this book in 1 or 2 sittings.

Accompanying Louis XV’s depravity there was also an increase in graphic description and declaration of love compared to the first book. Again, this might be due to Louis XV himself and his perverse tastes, but it was again a pity as Christie could have explored something more than just the royal bedchamber secrets throughout her book. She did try to balance out the sordid moments with more court intrigue and political wrangling—which she actually does quite successfully and far more enjoyable—but there was never a great sense of how Madame de Pompadour influenced events beyond a few throwaway moments. In fact, for someone so powerful I barely saw it. Instead the “best” that Christie conveyed Pompadour’s power was constantly having every character claim that the Marquise was the most powerful personage at court. I thought the little bits where Madame de Pompadour referenced the Austrian Succession War and Seven Years War were most fascinating and I wish there was more showing as opposed to telling through letters.

Another side note is that I really appreciated the fictional letters that Christie wrote to highlight how people in Versailles communicate, particularly with rivals. I loved how everyone is very proper and formal in their letters while insulting each other. I could not help but chuckle when I read the letters that Richulieu and Madame de Pompadour exchanged.  The letters bring out a new level of nastiness and contempt that different faction of courtiers had for each other and I thought it was a great way to help bring the characters and story alive.

Overall, I think Christie had a very strong grasp of the material and tried her best to curate all her research to present a cohesive and engaging story. I found her characterization of Louis XV and his court to be very interesting (I could not say spot on since I do not know enough about this particular period of history) and it was very easy to understand why France collapsed in a revolution mere decades later. I just wished that there was a tighter plotline and better characterization for some of the other narrators. It would have made a much more gripping read, even if it was just (not so) petty rivalries in the rooms of Versailles.

 

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