Reviewed by Vera Pereskokova
Having ascended to the throne of France at the age of five, King Louis XV is determined to be everything his predecessors not: virtuous, pious, faithful to his wife. And at first, the young King looks to only have eyes for his older Polish wife, fathering no less than 10 children. Soon, however, the power, the incessant flattery from everyone around him, and the couple’s age difference takes toll, leaving anyone and everyone at Versailles scrambling to influence the King’s choice of the first mistress.
Stuck in a loveless marriage, Louise de Mailly (married name) – the eldest of five sisters from an aristocratic family – is sent to Versailles as a Queen’s lady. Naive, innocent, and not terribly intelligent, Louise becomes Cardinal de Fleury’s – chief minister and the man who all but rules France – prime candidate to share the King’s bed. Hesitant at first, Louise does fall deeply in love with the man she nicknames Twinkle, and he with her.
For many years, Louise puts the needs of the King before her own, asking for nothing in return for the comfort and support she freely offers. Craving an ally at Court, Louise gives in to her older sister’s pleas and invites Pauline de Mailly-Nesle from the convent she’s called home since their mother’s death to Versailles. That decision, unfortunately, proves to be Louise’s undoing. Smart-witted despite her lack of education and intensely ambitious, Pauline plots to replace Louise in the King’s affections even before she arrives at Versailles. And once there, she quickly succeeds.
In the years that followed, two more de Nesle sisters – cunning and somewhat heartless Marie-Anne, and silly and carefree Diane – bedded the King that came to be known as Louis the Beloved. Through it all, the women vied for love or power, or both, in a world where women rarely had either.
I have not read historical fiction in a while and I’m so glad that my foray back into this genre began with The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie. I’ve come across too many historical novels that are too dense, that place authenticity – in facts and language – before accessability. I know that there is certainly an audience for these historical novels, but personally, I prefer ones that are more approachable, more fun to read. And I found such a novel in The Sisters of Versailles.
Sally Christie’s depiction of life at Versailles is engaging and scintillating (and according to Christie’s note at the end of the book, largely true). She tells the story of these women from the varying perspectives of each sister, allowing the reader an intimate look into the thoughts and motivations of Louise, Pauline, Marie-Anne and Diane. I greatly enjoyed reading about their lives and look forward to the second installment in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, The Rivals of Versailles, due out this April.
Review copy was provided by Atria Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.