Carole DeSanti, “The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.”

It’s 1861. Goose-girl from the south of France runs away with her handsome lover. He sends her to Paris to wait for him but he never shows up and she has to become a prostitute. She sits for a painter and his portrait of her launches him at the Paris Salon. She enters a posh brothel. Turns out it’s basically indentured servitude. Second Empire Paris, she finds out, is run for the benefit of the rich and crafty.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. could have been right up my alley, with that subject matter, but I knew from the prologue that Carole DeSanti and I were not going to get along. “Because I was a girl, and am now a woman, I have dreamed, some nights. Dreams do their best to reset the soul, but it is heavy work.” Maybe it’s not the author but her narrator I took against: Eugenie Rigault has a portentous way with a story, to the extent that I sometimes did not know quite what was going on. More, clearly, than the mere action of the book, which in itself is pretty comprehensive. Eugenie travels the underside of Paris and DeSanti has obviously done a great deal of research so if you wonder about Prefectural record-keeping or mid-19th-century birth control, this is a terrific resource. The novel spans ten years, including the Siege of Paris and Commune, meticulously plotted out.

Problem is, Eugenie is sort of a downer. She has moments of exhilaration, mistrusting them as she does so. Enjoys various men, eligible or not. Relies on pals from the brothel whom I couldn’t quite keep straight. At the end, it turns out she had a bad relationship with her mother: “She was the very node of turmoil; a trouble inseparable from me, that webbed my life. She was every part of me; the knife edge of my own contamination. I didn’t need Paris to find corruption.” Well, Paris was the part of this book I liked best.

About carolwallace

I spend most of my time writing and reading. Most recent publications: the reissue of "To Marry an English Lord,"one of the inspirations for "Downton Abbey," and the historical novel "Leaving Van Gogh." I am too cranky to belong to a book group but I love the book-blogging community.
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4 Responses to Carole DeSanti, “The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.”

  1. Thanks for reading and reviewing it, Carol, even if you didn’t care for the novel. I can take my knocks with the best of them, it’s part of the writer’s job…not a fun part, but a part, as I’ve learned from the writers I’ve worked with. I’ll draw on their examples of grace under pressure, now! All the best

    • carolwallace says:

      Carole, I may not have stressed enough that “it’s not her, it’s me.” A question of taste (mine) rather than execution (yours). Best of luck with it!

  2. Judith McKinnon says:

    Another book set Paris, in this case on the eve of the revolution, that I found immensely enjoyable was Andrew Miller’s ‘Pure’. It likewise has a protagonist from the country out to make his fortune in the big city – this time it’s a young engineer commissioned by a minister of the King’s to move a cemetery – a fairly Herculean task. Excellent writing, imaginative characters and a weirdly claustrophobic setting – I can’t recommend it enough! Judith

    • carolwallace says:

      Judith, I love the sound of “Pure.” I can’t get enough of that business with the Parisian cemeteries in the 18-19th centuries, so this should be right up my alley. Thanks!

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