Thursday, March 3, 2016

Review: The Sisters of Versaille by Sally Christie

Title: The Sisters of Versailles
Author: Sally Christie
Publisher:  Atria Books (September 1, 2015)
ISBN: 9781501102967
Pages: 432 pages
How I Read It: eARC
Genre: historical fiction
My Rating: 3 cups 

A sumptuous and sensual tale of power, romance, family, and betrayal centered around four sisters and one King. Carefully researched and ornately detailed, The Sisters of Versailles is the first book in an exciting new historical fiction trilogy about King Louis XV, France’s most “well-beloved” monarch, and the women who shared his heart and his bed.

Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.

Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters—Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne—four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot—and women—forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters—sweet, naïve Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne—will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood—of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

My Thoughts:

"To the charming Nesle sisters," he says. "Each with their own charms, each unique. I would that I had known your mother well, ladies, that I could have thanked that most honorable woman for her efforts in producing such angels."

Five sisters, one king, four of the five 'ladies' become his mistresses -- The historical basis for this book is surely proof, once again, that truth can be stranger than fiction. Previously unfamiliar with the Nesle sisters and their association with Louis XV, I was certainly intrigued by the description of this book and curious to find out more.

The prose is easy-reading, and Sally Christie effectively conveys the atmosphere of the French Court with vivid descriptions of the luxurious surroundings and fashions, as well as the cutthroat maneuvering of the many courtiers. 

"In this vast palace it is hard to find one’s way; traps and trickery are everywhere and life is rich in rules that everyone seems to know but myself. The palace is like a treacherous flower I once heard about, beautiful and lush, that eats the flies that dare to land on its lips."

The story is told in alternating sections from the perspectives of the five sisters, and the author does a good job of giving each sister a unique voice. However, none are particularly likable and all feel one-dimensional -- almost 'cookie-cutter' representations of their personalities -- with virtually no character growth throughout the book.

It takes some time for the plot to get going, and once it does it tends to be somewhat repetitive and much like a soap opera. This is not altogether surprising considering that four of these women became the king's mistresses in turn, but I do feel there were missed opportunities by the author to create greater interest and tension through various political events or further interactions with influential figures such as the queen. Instead we are given primarily 'bedroom drama' and endless petty sniping amongst the sisters, which quickly becomes annoying.

Given the overall lack of reliable source materials regarding the Nesle sisters, Christie has made an admirable attempt at imagining their story. Unfortunately, though, it fell a bit flat for me, and I found it too shallow to be completely satisfying.

"Petty struggles, silly feuds, all of it, in the end, what does it matter? We were sisters; we should have loved each other."

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher and provided through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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