You know that "If you could have superhero powers, what would they be?" question that pops up in memes here and there? I'm not ever really sure how to answer that one, because I'm not sure if my desired super power really belongs to a hero, despite the fact that it does, indeed, happen on the TV show Heroes. The super power I want? To be able to time travel. I don't think I really would want to live for a long time in, say, Celtic Great Britain before the Romans came (no books then! and think how hard it must have been to take a bath) or America during the pioneers' time (consider the difficulties just in feeding your family, let alone doing the laundry, and my hair would be constantly frizzy and ugly without a blow dryer). I'm mostly glad I was born in the time period I was, but I also have a deep yearning to know how things used to be.
Lucky for me, my super power can be sort of granted by way of historical fiction. Since my earliest reading days I've had a fondness for well-done historical fiction. (Remember the http://amysorensen.typepad.com/the_english_geek/2008/01/book-note-miss.html ? and I swear: Laura Ingalls was one of my best friends.) I like how it brings history out of the blandness of dates and politics, bringing the experiences of people to life. When I spotted the novel Mistress of the Revolution, by Catherine Delors, on the library shelf, I snatched it right up. It tells the story of a woman living during the French revolution, a time period I'm sort of vague on, anyway. I mean, I know that Marie Antoinette was involved, and starving peasants outraged by her "let them eat cake" edict, and that partly it happened as a result of the American revolution. But the things that actually happened, the whys and hows? I'm not so clear on.
What's a little bit frustrating, after finishing this, is that I'm still not very clear on all of it. I did learn a lot about how women in France were treated during the years before the war (deplorably), as the first part of the novel was excellent. Gabrielle, an impoverished noblewoman, falls in love with a bourgeoisie, but is married off to a lecherous older---and far wealthier---man. There's rape and misery and anger, but she manages to find a way to make things work. Until her horrid husband dies and she discovered there's hardly anything left for her in his will.
I wish the novel would have continued on like it did during this first section, wish it would have continued to have felt like a novel. Instead, as Gabrielle goes off to find her way in Paris, it starts to read like a personal history. Faced with the daunting task of making her characters livewithin the complexities of the revolution, Delors falls apart a little. For example: Gabrielle (who is now the kept woman of the aristocrat Villers) accepts a position as the lady-in-waiting to the queen's cousin. But we never go to the castle with her; we don't experience what it's like to serve the royal family---something that would be cool to know. Instead, it's just a little detail thrown into the story that exists to make things more difficult for Gabrielle when the revolution arrives at her doorstep. Plus, I think what a well-written historical fiction does is weave in the teaching into the story so that it feels like part of the story instead of like a history lesson. Delors doesn't even attempt to do that. Instead, she simply drops in names of people who really experienced the revolution, assuming we know exactly who they are and what their motivations were. If I have to stop reading in order to research a character or political movement, I'm not going to feel like a happy reader.
Still, despite those flaws, I did enjoy the novel. I learned quite a bit about the French revolution---exactly how cruel the populace was to the royals, for example, or anyone who has worked for or schemed with them. I was reminded of how miserable many women's lives were. It sparked an interest for learning more. I'd even recommend it to someone who wanted to learn about that time period. But as a time traveling machine, it was a little faulty.