Sitting in her Abbaye Prison cell, Hélène d’Aubign, a 19-year-old aristocrat, recounts the events of her life leading up to the moments of her imprisonment. The novel spans from 1783 through 1792 looking at everything from the forbidden love between a jeweler’s apprentice and the daughter of a Marquis to the uprise of the French Revolution that sent noble families deep into hiding.
The constant back and forth between the small excerpts of Hélène in prison and the steady downfall of her comfortable aristocratic life left a small well of anxiety in the pit of my chest. One that only grew with each scraggly tally mark marking a new chapter and a new day in prison.
Juxtaposition was common, whether it be through character foils or themes. My personal favorite was the idea of duty versus desire.
From the very beginning, with Hélène’s progressive governess taking her to secret meetings for the revolution, author Lindsay K. Bandy makes it clear that what seems like a clear cut line, isn’t always what it seems.
Many of the characters are caught in this web of carrying on with the traditional path or embracing radical ideas that are, quite literally, knocking on the city’s border.
Hélène is faced with an arranged marriage, knowing that her parents’ ice-cold relationship with one another is a direct result of one. Her old governess was left believing that she could never marry Hugo, a runaway slave from the Caribbean.
The contrast heightened the risks between Théo and Hélène’s secret love affair and plans to run far, far away together. Everything about those two was so beautifully heartbreaking.
Even before the uproar of the revolution forcing her family to escape France, there was a yearning for a future that both, as well as the reader, knew would never come. Stolen glances, kisses, and whispers would never be enough.
The pining of forbidden childhood friends into lovers was built up perfectly, making the dismantling of that relationship all the more agonizing.
Towards the middle and end of the book, a sort of love triangle is created. Hélène returns to Paris, out of the exile the revolution forced her family into, and rushes to find Théo.
Unfortunately, he has moved on and married someone he doesn’t love out of, you guessed it, a sense of duty. There are subtle reminders of his and Hélène’s love, like a little piece of licorice, that keep the idea of desire pestering the reader›s mind.
Hélène struggles to move on until an unsuspecting encounter with a figure from her past. They fall in love, or as in love with someone as one can be knowing that their soulmate is down the street married to another woman.
I’m not particularly fond of this trope, mainly because it is rare that they are ever well-written; however, this was less of a triangle (or square depending how you look at it) and more of a longing for a love that always could have been, should have been.
Hélène’s characterization was particularly compelling. She stays true to herself throughout the entire novel, being curious about the world around her. Nothing stops her from trying to learn her true identity, be with the man she loves, and escape the world constricting her life.
She was a bit too naive for my taste, though who can blame her with the recluse upbringing she had faced as a woman in the 18th century. I had expected more of a character growth within her understanding of the world around her but that never seemed to develop.
If Hélène had a moment of realization for why the people were rioting, rather than just blindly accepting it to escape the pitiless nature of her family, then the novel could have expanded on social issues otherwise only briefly touched on.
I did really like, though, that Hélène’s idea of the revolution was constantly at odds in her mind. There was the knowledge that the revolution would do so much to improve the lives of the citizens -or so she thought – but also having the understanding that those the people are after are her family and friends, people she’s spent her whole life around.
The ending was slightly unexpected. Much of the novel had a slower pacing that made it easy to piece together frayed bits of the plotline, but there were moments that had shock value.
Too many of the characters got a happy ending for, what I believe to be, a period of history that left a majority of the people without a happy ending. That being said, it didn’t detract from the phenomenal value of the book or the beautiful writing that accompanied it.