Author: Sandra Gulland
Rating: 2.5 stars
I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
For the vast majority of The Shadow Queen, I was trying to figure out why it left me so cold.
This happens to me a lot with historical fiction (especially judging from past reviews). A historical event or figure sounds fascinating to me on a book blurb, but when it comes to the actual novel, I have trouble connecting, and ultimately feel bored or frustrated. Not all historical novels are alike, and this has happened to me often enough that I think it’s become a case of it’s not you, it’s me. A certain audience will love Sandra Gulland’s The Shadow Queen. I was not part of that audience.
Claudette, the narrator, is the daughter of poor, itinerant actors. She is the glue that holds her family together, especially after her father’s untimely death, taking care of both her dramatic, unstable mother and her “simpleton” (probably autistic) brother. Eventually, she develops a relationship with Athenais de Montespan, a spoiled Parisian aristocrat. When Athenais becomes the mistress of King Louis XIV, Claudette becomes her personal maid and closest confidante, but it is a tenuous relationship that cannot last.
Let me state at the outset, The Shadow Queen was not badly written. I thought the use of first person a poor choice, but there was nothing egregious in the writing. The historical details are fascinating–especially the little, almost throwaway references that show the depth of Gulland’s research into the period. But there were a few things that really bothered me and kept throwing me out of the story.
There’s a lot of telling versus showing. Big, momentous events are glossed over, and years passed in the text in what I initially thought was the space of a few weeks. The relationship between Claudette and Athenais is alluded to with overtones of sexual attraction–especially given the fact that Claudette is at one point a thirty-something-year-old virgin who has not once expressed sexual attraction to a man (remember, she is the one actually narrating this story, you think she might have said something). At one point, the always high and horny Athenais even invites her into bed. Yet all of this is completely brushed off and not dealt with, and suddenly Claudette, who again has not once expressed actual sexual desire for a man, suddenly looks at a guy and wants to lick him. It was weird. You don’t go from being nonsexual to wanting to lick random dudes, which definitely made me feel there was some piece missing in the text.
Finally, the story was overly sentimental. A long passage dealing with Claudette nursing her ailing mother seemed to me to be less about historical concerns than shoehorned in to appeal to middle aged women caring for aging parents (Cynical? Obviously, but I’m built that way). People long assumed dead under bad circumstances re-appear improbably. Claudette has trials thrown her way, but everything ends up sunny and bright. Her brother finds his place in the world, her child is pure Plot Moppet, and as she reaches her fifties, suddenly everything is contentment.
I think that may be why these historical fiction novels are not for me. I’m not searching out unhappy endings. I just don’t want saccharine ones. The world is complex, history is complex, and in novels like this I feel that the complexity is brushed off in exposition and everything else is presented in a neat and tidy little package. Some people look for that in their fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just doesn’t satisfy me.