Ill-focused look at the Belle Époque in France.
Cambor chooses three “gilded youth” to carry her story—Léon Daudet, son of Provençal novelist Alphonse Daudet; Jean-Baptiste Charcot, son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot; and Jeanne Hugo, granddaughter of legendary novelist Victor Hugo. The author quickly loses the thread of Jeanne, who didn’t accomplish much more in her life than marry and divorce the previous two men, while Jean-Baptiste, after practicing medicine like his father, departs the narrative to pursue his real love—high-seas exploration. In contrast to their three wise, positivist forebears, who had championed “a hard-won faith in the human capacity for progress,” the youth came of age in an unsettling time, as France faced the fallout from the Franco-Prussian War, foreign elements came under increasing suspicion and the Dreyfus Affair opened a suppurating vein of anti-Semitism. With the deaths of the aged parents in the late 1880s and ’90s, the idols had fallen and darker days were rolling in. Léon, divorced from spoiled socialite Jeanne, took up with unsavory friends such as anti-Republic royalist Charles Maurras and Édouard Drumont, founder of the Antisemitic League of France. He became a bombastic polemicist and reactionary for the conservative publication Action Française, rallying public outrage against Marie Curie’s election to the Academy of Sciences. Cambor’s dense prose obscures much of the dynamism of this “age of extremes,” and the lack of excerpts from these great authors’ works seems like a missed opportunity for important contextual development.
Diligent but tedious.