the french orphan book coverReviewed by R.A. Donley

It’s Three Musketeers time! Of that milieu, at least, with Richelieu as primary villain.

Teenaged Pierre, a poor orphan placed “at the famous monastery school in the city of Reims” is destined for life as a village priest or other lowly religious rank, and in the meantime is treated to corporal punishment, occasional starvation and approaches by homosexual monks who lack adequate bodily hygiene. Because, of course, that is how poor orphans were treated in France during the seventeenth century.

Not to worry, though, because Pierre has in fact been secretly placed there as an infant for protection from feuding family enemies. Besides, he has a protector in Armand, young scion of a noble family and the only person in the entire abbey who knows that Pierre is the heir to a wealthy marquisate. But Pierre’s father is near death, and Pierre’s thoroughly unscrupulous cousin Henri, next in line to become the marquis, has made a corrupt deal with Cardinal Richelieu, the effective ruler of France, whereby Pierre’s death will immediately bring the title to Henri, complete with royal certification.

With the assistance of Marie, only child of a modest nobleman (and who immediately falls in love with handsome humble Pierre despite his condition of life), Armand arranges to steal the documents confirming Pierre’s birth. All three flee Reims to take passage for England, the native land of Pierre’s mother, pursued by malevolent Henri and various minions of Cardinal Richelieu.

To make a long (and it is quite lengthy) story short, after dangerous adventures in England and further excitement in France, all ends well with three or more sets of heroes and heroines happily married and wallowing in wealth.

If the reader happens to be familiar with Singin’ in the Rain, this story might remind him/her of The Dueling Cavalier before Donald O’Connor comes up with the bright idea of changing it into The Dancing Cavalier.

Except it takes longer. Stolle so thoroughly describes the exploits and sins of all the main characters, and the activities and motivations of many of the minor ones that 389 pages are required. Believe me, the key points could have easily been covered in 289. By judicious editing, in fact, perhaps 189 pages would have been sufficient. Still, I expect many readers will feel The French Orphan gives them their money’s worth.

Stolle has a decent command of the English language and an adequate vocabulary, though also a tendency to run-on sentences and the re-use of words in close proximity to one another. The latter is common enough in conversation but irritating in the written word. There’s also a sense that he has a need to say something twice for it to be believed. There’s also a sense that he has a need to say something twice for it to be believed. (Sorry!) Thus we read a description of Richelieu condemning the failure of a servant and threatening him with dismissal, and in the next paragraph are assured that the servant feels bad and knows he must do better in order to retain his job.  This occurs time after time and is one reason the story drags.

Stolle also goes into detail as to the experiences and motivations not only of his main characters but of the walk-ons and extras. If Armand instructs a hostler to curry and feed his horse we learn of how long the currying took and that there were burrs in the fetlocks—and perhaps that oats have run out, requiring the feeding of rye despite the dangers of ergot. If Marie chides her maid Stolle relates not only how but why the maid failed, and how she feels about criticism from her mistress on this particular day of the month. Possibly we’ll also learn something of her mother’s advice given during the maid’s last visit home. (I exaggerate somewhat but not greatly.)

Stolle has, so far as I can judge, a good knowledge of the historical outline of the period but no feel for it. The motivations of his characters, their responses to stimuli and their modes of speech are relentlessly modern, giving no true impression of the era.

Then there is stereotyping. Stolle’s villains are as villainously villainous as villains can possibly be, while his heroes and heroines are all remarkably good looking, brave, skillful and well-groomed. The heroes, for instance, are deadly swordsmen despite the fact Pierre has never handled a hilt before going on his travels. Further, all tavern maids are aching to warm the sheets of handsome aristocrats, and anyone connected with the church tends to be low on ethics and the use of soapy water. Ah, if only life were so simple!

Much could be improved if Stolle were willing to give his readers some credit for imagination instead of his feeling a need to paint every leaf on the tree. A novel should resemble a watercolor more than a photograph. He needs to communicate those things which advance the plot, not make detours into a description of every character and incident that occurs.

Donley enjoys a quasi-rural life in the snowy part of Ohio, battling with deer, possums, raccoons and other wilderness denizens. A life-long reader with broad interests in books and music, he wishes he’d paid more attention to Mrs. Moore in tenth-grade English.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Michael Stolle. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.