Glimpses of the history of primitive flight, tales of high romance and juicy anecdotes about Napoleon make this sweet novel soar.
Canny, fetching and courageous, Sophie Blanchard was the Amelia Earhart of early-19th-century France. Drawing mobs rapt at the sight of a woman piloting a hot-air balloon, she was part celebrity, part celestial vision. Donn (The Roosevelt Cousins, 2001, etc.) introduces her as a country lass, enamored of her penniless playmate André but reluctantly married to the much older and richer Jean-Pierre. He weds to settle a debt of honor to Sophie’s family, who’d rescued him after his fall from “a contraption made of two bicycles.” An inventor and a white-knuckled daredevil, he’s one of aviation’s pioneers, wafting above the Tuilleries even while knock-kneed with fear. Sophie suffers his blandishments but adores his balloon, and she’s soon flying solo with brio. All France gasps. Especially smitten is the Emperor, fed up with chronically faithless Josephine: The cuckolded husband steams as his wife splurges on gowns made of toucan feathers or rose petals. He yearns, instead, for a woman with a warrior heart, and begins to flirt with Sophie. Yet, after Jean-Pierre dies, André returns to lay siege to Sophie. Like his childhood squeeze, he, too, has become a star—crowds of the desperate line up to receive his psychic cures. He touches gnarled limbs, and the lame walk! Soon, it’s a highly irregular love triangle: a wonder woman, a faith healer and a military demi-god. Goethe guest stars, as do various obscure true-life aeronauts, and Donn tells the story delightfully. Her prose has the calculated naïveté and freshness of a Fragonard masterwork, and she conveys sheer wonder fluidly.
Charming and smart—singularly high-spirited historical fiction.