This peculiar hybrid of fact-checked historical fiction and breathless bodice-ripper chronicles the romantic flings of four teens in 1799 France.
Eliza Monroe, daughter of future U.S. president James Monroe, arrives at a Paris finishing school where she’s befriended by fellow pupils Hortense de Beauharnais (daughter of Joséphine, stepdaughter of Napoleon Bonaparte) and Caroline Bonaparte (sister of Napoleon): beautiful, scheming frenemies. This promising, frothy-but-fun scenario is overshadowed by a less-successful melodrama. Madeleine de Pourtant, secretly engaged to Hortense’s brother, is the daughter of Gloriande, a star of the Comédie Française. Formerly enslaved in Martinique, Gloriande—drug-addicted, abusive, mentally unstable, a sexual omnivore discarded by her white aristocratic husband—resurrects the toxic “tragic mulatto” stereotype, as does Madeleine herself. The plot veers unsteadily from accounts of student entertainments, girlish crushes and romantic intrigues to Gloriande’s depraved brutality and Madeleine’s misery. Throughout, narrators Hortense, Eliza and Madeleine keep the emotional temperature constant, reacting to overheard gossip, the discovery of admirers and General Bonaparte’s power plays with the same feverish excitement. Dunlap has clearly done her history homework, but characterization is sketchy and the noisy plot not always credible. Annemarie Selinko’s classic historical romance Désirée (1953) offers what’s missing: compelling characters who made, and were made by, the world they lived in.
Pass. (Historical romance. 12 & up)