Set against the gilt-edged rococo backdrop of early eighteenth century Versailles, and the reign of Louis XV, The Sisters of Versailles follows the lives of the five Mailly-Nesle Sisters: Louise, Pauline, Marie-Anne, Diane, and Hortense.
When their mother dies the girls leave their childhood nursery and home and are split up. Pauline and Diane are consigned to a convent where they languish for want of freedom and excitement, Marie-Anne and Hortense go to the care of an aunt, and Louise, the eldest, to a marriage and Versailles as one of the queen’s attendants. It isn’t long before Louise attracts the attention of schemers within the palace who are aware of the King Louis’ waning romantic interest in his much older queen. Anxious to avoid the possibility of an unknown, and therefore possibly dangerous liaison, they convince Louise to become the king’s mistress, certain they can control her and that she won’t introduce any undue influence or upset the status quo.
There are endless petty struggles for precedence, mounted with the precision of military campaigns.
She is everything they hoped for. But when plotting and forceful Pauline comes to visit, after years of begging letters, she steals Louis away from Louise, and sets about terrorizing and alienating these very same jaded courtiers; Pauline is nothing like her docile eldest sister. She is shrewd, selfish, and disdainful. As a reader, I found her character arc the saddest, as it is only in her last moments that Pauline shows a dawning ability to love.
Next in line for the king’s affections is Marie-Anne, perhaps the most formidable of all the sisters. Bold and self-serving beneath a pretty, charming exterior, she is almost sociopathic in the pursuit of the fulfillment of her needs.—This is the girl who starved mice as a child, to see how long it would take them to die.— An experimenter in the bedroom as well, she even shares Louis with her youngest sister: sweet, plump, ingenuous Diane.
Over the course of the novel, which spans decades, four of the sisters succumb to King Louis. It’s the strangest story ever, made more so by being based on true events. Only Hortense resists the siren pull of the king’s bed, and it’s through her eyes, as the lone and final survivor, that this story is told. Historical details are unobtrusively sprinkled into the narrative: we see the wide-hipped gowns and powdered wigs, the jewels, the high-stakes card games, the carriages pulled by teams of glossy horses, the lavish feasts (while peasants starved) in fabulous, high-ceilinged and ornate rooms, the remarkable gardens of the palace. The writing is above good, even wonderful in places; funny at times, and sad at others. Sparkling dialogue, witty characterizations, wicked innuendo, and dire doings kept me turning pages and wanting to find out what would happen next.
The Sisters of Versailles is Sally Christie’s debut novel, and it’s a page-turner.
432 pages. Publication date: September 1st 2015 by Atria Books