Published by Doubleday on April 8, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
From the author of the beloved Josephine B. Trilogy, comes a spellbinding novel inspired by the true story of a young woman who rises from poverty to become confidante to the most powerful, provocative and dangerous woman in the 17th century French court: the mistress of the charismatic Sun King.
Claudette’s life is like an ever-revolving stage set. From an impoverished childhood wandering the French countryside with her family’s acting troupe, Claudette finally witnesses her mother's astonishing rise to stardom in Parisian theaters. Working with playwrights Corneille, Molière and Racine, Claudette’s life is culturally rich, but like all in the theatrical world at the time, she's socially scorned.
A series of chance encounters gradually pull Claudette into the alluring orbit of Athénaïs de Montespan, mistress to Louis XIV and reigning "Shadow Queen." Needing someone to safeguard her secrets, Athénaïs offers to hire Claudette as her personal attendant.
Enticed by the promise of riches and respectability, Claudette leaves the world of the theater only to find that court is very much like a stage, with outward shows of loyalty masking more devious intentions. This parallel is not lost on Athénaïs, who fears political enemies are plotting her ruin as young courtesans angle to take the coveted spot in the king's bed.
Indeed, Claudette's "reputable" new position is marked by spying, illicit trysts and titanic power struggles. As Athénaïs, becomes ever more desperate to hold onto the King's favor, innocent love charms move into the realm of deadly Black Magic, and Claudette is forced to consider a move that will put her own life—and the family she loves so dearly—at risk.
Set against the gilded opulence of a newly-constructed Versailles and the War of Theaters, THE SHADOW QUEEN is a seductive, gripping novel about the lure of wealth, the illusion of power, and the increasingly uneasy relationship between two strong-willed women whose actions could shape the future of France.
I could write an extremely long review on why I loved THE SHADOW QUEEN. But no one wants to read a novel about a novel, so here’s what’s really important: I connected with this book. I read it twice, because the first time I flew through it so quickly I couldn’t write a review other than “read this!” The second time, I enjoyed the book even more. It’s one I’m sure to read another couple of times in the future.
I had never heard of Claudette des Œillets before reading THE SHADOW QUEEN, and from what I gather, she doesn’t have the greatest historical reputation. Claudette is known for being involved with the Affair of the Poisons during the reign of Louis XIV. Claudette is also known for being the companion of Athénaïs de Montespan, the “Shadow Queen” of the king, aka the real power behind the throne.
However, Sandra Gulland presents a different side of Claudette. It’s a side that worked very well for me, because I empathized so with Claudette. Claudette’s father dies when she’s young, and he puts the responsibility for her high-strung mother and handicapped brother on her shoulders. The majority of the rest of her life is spent making sure they’re provided for, whether she has to clean chamber pots or find a wet nurse for Athénaïs’s offspring by the king. Whatever it takes to put a roof over their heads and food on the table.
France in the middle to late 1600s was a pretty miserable place for poor people, so I understood why Claudette was so entranced whenever she had a chance meeting with Athénaïs. The encounters start when both girls are children, and even then, Claudette’s easily able to see the difference between their lives. She’s living in a cave, begging to perform for the king while Athénaïs and her pony are dripping in ribbons and silver. So I could see why Claudette would give up one life she loved (theatre) for Athénaïs and the court.
THE SHADOW QUEEN had just the right amount of historical detail to for me to perfectly imagine Claudette’s world, from the theatre to court. I’ve never had an interest in French plays or the history of them, but now I do, thanks to reading this book. Claudette’s parents are both actors, and so the beginning “acts” of the book take place in the theatre world. It was pretty cool to find out how plays were staged back then. Also, when Claudette moves to court, to be Athénaïs’ maid and companion, it was easy to draw allusions between both false worlds.
In between my readings of THE SHADOW QUEEN, I read its companion novel, MISTRESS OF THE SUN. That book is about Louis XIV’s other mistress, Louise de la Vallière. For a complete reading experience, I recommend reading both (the order doesn’t matter in my opinion). I did prefer THE SHADOW QUEEN, mostly because of Claudette.
The only criticism I have for this book is I think “THE SHADOW QUEEN” is a misleading title. The book is about Claudette’s entire life, not just her time at court with Athénaïs. At first I thought the book would be all about the real shadow queen, but it’s not. So if you’re expecting a book entirely about Athénaïs, this is not it. But Claudette’s story is just as good.
I don’t know, guys. I just had a love affair with this book. Both times I read it, I couldn’t put it down. The smooth writing, the historical detail, the interesting story — everything together submerged me so completely into Claudette’s world. My eyes hated me, because I’d just keep flipping page after page.
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