Two centuries of war, revolution, romance and tragedy in France, compressed into the story of one gleaming gem.
Gracing Marie-Antoinette’s neck, Louis XV’s shoulder and Napoleon Bonaparte’s sword, the massive Régent diamond, also known as the Pitt diamond, was never far from the reach of French leaders from the early 1700s to the late 1800s. That could be both a blessing and a curse: “As the nation went, so went the Régent,” writes Las Cases, the genial narrator of Baumgold’s lavish, meticulously detailed historical novel. Discovered in India in 1701, the 426-carat raw diamond changed hands often, from the slave who found it, to the sailor who killed him for it, to Thomas Pitt, England’s Indian governor, who eventually had the gem cut to a 136-carat, much-lusted-after beauty. Exiled with Napoleon in Saint Helena, Las Cases is supposed to write a history of the aging dictator, but he’s more compelled to relate the history of the diamond—a task that’s often foiled by his boss’s attempts to hijack the narrative with blustering suggestions about how the story should go. This book, Las Cases explains, is partly hidden from the emperor, giving it a pleasantly conspiratorial feel. The drama of Baumgold’s story, of course, is not in the diamond itself but in the way it reflected the anxieties and moral failings of those who possess it, from the debauched Duke d’Orleans to the hubristic Napoleon. For any reader not already fascinated by peccadilloes at Versailles and the power shifts following the French Revolution, Baumgold’s steady stream of historical detail might feel more oppressive than entertaining. But her command of her subject manner is impressive, and her ability to spin small, humanizing vignettes about courtly manners and palace intrigues is skillful; her portrait of Napoleon, from his arrogant rise to spirited but weary decline is particularly rich and layered.
Though sometimes blindingly detailed, a regal, multi-faceted feat of historical fiction.