Friday, August 12, 2011
Before Versailles is the luscious, sweeping story of the young Louis XIV in his first year as king of France. Told in the alternating perspectives of the young king and his first love, the woman who would become his mistress, Karleen Koen's newest weaves a portrait of court and country in turmoil with the legends of this colorful period in history, including that of the mysterious man in the iron mask.
I've been waiting for Before Versailles to come out ever since I first heard about it, which was approximately a year ago. As a big fan of Koen's other books that take place in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, I eagerly awaited it's release. Yet, I was fearful. I was not overly fond of her last book, Dark Angels, a prequel to Through a Glass Darkly. Dark Angels was somewhat of a disappointment, and I was afraid it was because there had been such a large gap of years between Dark Angels and Now Face to Face, the sequel to Through a Glass Darkly.
No such worries with Before Versailles, despite the fact it took me a while to get into it. I downloaded it on my kindle the day it came out and began reading it shortly after. But, due to various reasons and many interruptions, I couldn't sink my teeth into it right away. I wound up reading the first fifty pages in drips and drabs. Because of this, it took me a while to become absorbed in the world of Louis XIV - never fear - once I got past my initial stumbling block and found my stride, I became engrossed in the story. By mid-way it was hard to put down. Before I knew it - I was loving it.
As usual, Koen's characters are masterfully fleshed out and well written. They all have their own personalities, whether it's young and naive Louise Francoise de la Baume Le Blanc de La Valliere, new to court and starry eyed over the young and handsome King of France or even King Louis himself. A mere twenty-two years old, Louis is young and eager to strike out on his own. He wants to make a name for himself as the ruler of France. We follow Louis for four months during his early reign as he grows into his kingdom. Much of the story is from his point of view.
Now that his old adviser, Mazarin has died, Louis must rely on his own wits and judgment in regard to whom he trusts and keeps closest to him. At the same time, he is experiencing love, not once, but twice! Neither of the times is it with his bride. Instead, he falls for his new sister-in-law, Henriette, referred to at Court as Madame. Madame is the new wife to Monsieur, Louis' homosexual brother, Phillippe, who's giving it his best shot to be a loving heterosexual husband. Henriette is the sister of King Charles II of England. She is vivacious and charming and has brought new life to Louis' court, something his own wife, Queen Marie-Therese has been unable to do. Louis finds Henriette irresistible. He falls in love with her immediately and, I suspect, he falls in love with the dangerous thrill of an illicit love affair. In the eyes of the church, an affair with his sister-in-law would be considered incestuous - yet it doesn't stop him, he wants her and she wants him! No good can come of it.
Louis' second love is our sweet and guileless Louise. Louis and Louise - it made me cross eyed! I loved Louise, who is fortunate to be invited to be a lady in waiting for Madame at Court. She doesn't catch Louis' eye right away, but her kindness and honesty appeals to him, particularly in the events that transpire in which she reveals to the king the existence of a boy in an iron mask who she saw in the woods and lives in a nearby monastery. As the mystery unfolds after she informs the king of what she has learned (this is before their affair is even close to beginning), Louis' feelings for her ignite. He had never really noticed her while still in Henriette's thrall. She had merely been the young and pretty girl who walked his dogs and tried to prevent his beloved favorite, Belle, from dying. But now, all of a sudden, he sees her! Despite my reservations that Louise is falling for Louis, I was happy and excited for her. Their clandestine affair was thrilling, but also bittersweet and tender. If Louis is going to have a mistress, I much preferred sweet Louise over the vain and selfish Henriette. I was glad to learn that in real life Louise was more than just a brief fling to Louis.
Besides his love life, Louis is busy leaving his boyhood behind and becoming a real king during these four months. Whether it is tracking down the culprit who is leaving him nasty Mazarinades, (disgusting little notes of his mother and the late Cardinal Mazarin and their supposed love affair that went on until his recent death) or managing the secret regarding the imminent arrest of the Viscount Nicolas Fouquet who is stockpiling weapons and has more money than God. Louis has a lot on his plate but handles it all well - a harbinger of what is to come later during his reign.
I loved the setting of the Palace of Fontainebleau where most of the book takes place before Louis builds up his hunting lodge at Versailles. The imagery and descriptions are vivid as well as the rich historical detail. Life at court, the costumes, the intrigue. The gossip and courtiers surrounding the king and jockeying for position. Phillippe's indiscreet behavior amidst his circle of friends and lovers added to the story and gave it another dimension in addition to the whole brouhaha involving Louis and Henriette. There is so much going on, but it was told faultlessly. I didn't feel bogged down at all with events or names and faces. I'm sure Ms. Koen did tons of research for this book, yet it read like a novel, not like a history book. After reading this, I now appreciate the historic aspect of Dark Angels to a greater extent. Primarily this is because it's where Madame (Henriette) first comes to our attention and what later happens ten years from where Before Versailles leaves off.
If this is a period you are interested in, particularly in regard to Louis XIV himself, then this is a must read. I really loved it and will probably re-read it just so I can give the first half the attention it deserves. I really enjoyed the way Koen used some of the old legends and a nod to Alexandre Dumas (The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers) throughout the story. If it seems slow at first, stick with it, for it really is a beautiful period in Louis's life, romantically and politically, as he "grows up" and we see the inklings of what will be the legendary "Sun King."