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.