Not a book I would usually choose, as I am a bit wary of historical fiction (people often die horribly), but lent to me by my friend Jane. And I’m glad she did.
It’s a dual-thread-linked-through-history story of Isabelle du Moulin, a girl living in sixteenth century rural France, and her descendant, American Ella Turner, returning to her ancestors’ French roots after her husband is relocated.
Isabelle lives in a village and is regarded with mild suspicion by the other villagers because she comes from a family of midwives, and because as a teenager, her hair turned red overnight, giving her the nickname of “La Rousse” or The Virgin Mary. Once a sign of affection, this becomes a problem for Isabelle when the village allies itself with the Protestant cause.
Despite this, Isabelle attracts the attention of Etienne Tournier, and they marry. They do not have a close or passionate relationship, but Isabelle has no-one else to look after her. I’m always conscious when reading historical fiction of the economic pressure that many women must have felt to get married and I felt very much that this marriage made sense for Isabelle, especially when she felt that she did not fit into village society. It must have felt like a way to acceptance as well as economic survival.
In the modern world, Ella Turner is also trying to fit into French society, finding it difficult and feeling shunned. She becomes interested in trying to find out more about her ancestors. She is also having mysterious blue “flashes” which link her with Isabelle.
Ella’s story is an interesting parallel but I do think it’s difficult in parallel tales to give each thread equal weight – one tends to have a more striking setting and situation and it’s difficult to compare being an academic’s wife in the twenty-first century with being a persecuted Huguenot on the run.
Back in the sixteenth century, the religious wars are hotting up and things are getting very complicated for the villagers. I like the way this is portrayed – no excessively gory details, but it’s very clear how everybody’s daily life has to change forever. Chevalier intersects the realities of our everyday lives, which we go through now without blinking, with the unpredicabilities of conflict, and that really made me identify with the characters’ plight, despite the five hundred year gap.
I do think of this as an excessively female book! Which is not a bad thing, just wondering what a man would make of it. There is great emphasis on the multiple plight of Isabelle’s family: as midwives, as child bearers, and finally as child rearers in a male dominated society. I went on a training course recently where I learned that levels of child abuse in patriarchal societies and organisations are much much higher than they are in more egalitarian societies, which was interesting.
There’s also a lot of supernatural, which is not my cup of tea as a plot “hinge”. However I can see that this was the easiest way of linking the two stories as it would have been very cumbersome and unrealistic to have conveyed Isabelle’s story any other way – it’s unlikely that any written version of these events could ever have been passed down through the generations.
The descriptions of past and present France are very vivid and well executed.
The end is very memorable and I really felt for Isabelle, which is the strength of this book throughout. It’s not faultless, but it makes you feel.