432 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0547553092
France’s Second Empire (1860–1871) was an absinthe-soaked era during which real estate speculation and railway money created untold fortunes, while prostitution was a state-regulated enterprise that touched every stratum of society. It was also a time of sweeping social upheaval, culminating in a crushing Prussian defeat during the Franco-Prussian War that ended this Empire and that cut Paris off from its food supply.
Transporting us to this tumultuous time through the eyes of a beautiful, world-wise survivor, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. provides lush territory for anyone curious about this little-known and little-understood period in French History. This captivating debut novel by Carole DeSanti traces the transformation of Eugénie Rigault, a naïve 17-year-old girl, who follows her first love to Paris, only to find herself abandoned, pregnant, and penniless. Over the years, Eugénie develops into a fiercely determined, influential woman who never loses sight of the power of loyal friends and the art of self-creation. After she is forced to abandon her infant daughter, Eugénie spends the next decade fighting to get her back, making a meager living in the treacherous waters of sexual commerce. Along the way she falls in love with an artist, a woman, and a revolutionary (pretty much in that order). Paris, the gleaming center of art and civilization in Europe, is enjoying its final years of prosperity before galloping headlong into the Franco-Prussian War, and for Eugénie it is an addictive landscape, even as her fortunes ebb and flow. But as the gates of the city close against the advancing army, Eugénie must confront a bitter discovery about the man who set her fate in motion all those years ago.
This book is written the way historical novels should be written: carefully-researched, well-constructed, deeply-felt, and so detailed it feels as though you have been dropped inside the body of Eugénie R. Certainly, there are flaws with the book – DeSanti is easy on the political radicals who fought for the French Commune during the 1871 civil war; they weren’t quite as nice as she portrays them and she tends to take their side each time they appear in the novel, whereas I don’t believe they were always on the side of the angels; and even though I am moderately well-acquainted with the history of the era and DeSanti carefully fills in historical details so all readers can keep up, I had to look up names and events in two chapters to get a better sense of what exactly was going on – but even the sun has it’s spots.
During one of Eugénie’s – that is, DeSanti’s – self-referential meditations upon telling this story, she asks: “Does the story, in the way it is told, open a window into the soul’s fortress or place yet another stone to block the view?” Regarding this story, it seems impossible to definitively say yea or nay, but it is a sad, poignant, well-researched novel, apparently ten years in the making, which does open a window and let in the light and air of an epoch and the plight of the women therein which has been all-too neglected.