Gulland won my undying readerly love with her fantastic trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte. Her writing is warm and inviting, her characters rich and appealingly complicated. I've been waiting on tenterhooks for this novel, as I'm slightly obsessed with the notorious Athénaïs de Montespan, official mistress to the 17th century French 'Sun King' Louis XIV, and this delightfully detailed and well-plotted novel did not disappoint.
Apologies for the clunky review; is it too early to blame pregnancy brain? In brief, I inhaled this novel. It has all those qualities in a great hist fic: ambiance, sense of era, historically accurate drama, some splashy interpersonal drama, and fabulous clothes.
While this book is titled for Athénaïs, this novel is really about her loyal and devoted attendant, Claudette de Oeiletts. Poor, from a family of theater players, Claudette would likely be forgotten were it not for her relationship with Athénaïs and Louis XIV. Meeting the rich and spoiled noblewoman as a young teenager -- Athénaïs asked Claudette for a potion to kill her governess -- the two didn't cross paths again until in their twenties, when Claudette becomes a seamstress and confidante to Athénaïs.
In her time away from Athénaïs, Claudette lives in the vibrant world of playwrights and players, and Gulland's articulation of the people, protocols, and places of 17th century French theater makes this novel go from good to great. (Honestly, the theater world stole the show, apologies for the pun, and made even the licentious court feel pale!)
Claudette makes an appealing narrator: her voice is knowing and unsure at believable points, brave without feeling anachronistically bold. Her mistress Athénaïs is unbelievably awful, and yet, like Claudette, I was captivated by her, curious to learn more about her life. But she remains, in many ways, shadowy even to Claudette, masked in more than one way.
There are lovely extras in the book, including a five-page annotated cast list (which I didn't need: despite this being a heavily-peopled novel, everyone was so vibrant, they were easy to remember!), five-page glossary, a note about currency, and a genealogy as well as an Author's Note with some historical details. For theater geeks, Gulland's website includes her references and favorite websites about baroque theater.
Recommended for Francophiles and those who like court intrigue; but readers who enjoy novels about less wealthy heroines will also enjoy this.