I am reviewing my most anticipated book of 2021, The Women of Chateau Lafayette, today. I don’t review many books anymore, especially if I have any critiques to make (my thoughts on this in a later post), but there are certain authors who are too famous for my polite criticisms to injure their sales. And when I do make them, you can be sure that it’s because I have a great deal of respect for the author. Usually, I think many issues with books by more well-known authors are at least half the fault of the publishing world. So, with that in mind, here we go… [Note: There are mild spoilers ahead.]
The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sort of follow-up by Stephanie Dray to her Revolutionary War era books, America’s First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton. Since the Revolutionary War is my favorite era to study, I have read and loved both. I have seen in many reviews and, indeed, on the cover of this new book, that Stephanie Dray is touted as the author of those former books, but she is actually a co-author with Laura Kamoie. The fact that Kamoie wasn’t on this one made me a bit nervous that it wouldn’t be the same as the first two books because, frankly, they are such a dream team.
But having always adored America’s “favorite fighting Frenchman,” The Marquis de Lafayette, I was ecstatic to see he was the next subject one of these authors would be covering. Which, of course, is always a bad way to go into reading a book—with a ton of expectations.
When I received the book in the mail, I was stunned by its size. I haven’t done a page comparison, but I’m not kidding when I tell you that the only fiction books on my shelf which compare in size are War and Peace and Gone with the Wind. Needless to say, I expect no more whining about the size of Southern Rain, as it is quite dainty in comparison. 😉
Another thing that made me nervous about the book was that it didn’t stick with just the Revolutionary Era. There were to be time slips between WWI and WWII eras also. But I have to admit that the idea of Lafayette’s home being used as a beacon of freedom during the very dark hours of Vichy and Occupied France was breath-taking on the grand, sweeping scale of history, and I couldn’t fault Dray for going there.
Now, I am a person who does not mind a lot of things to remember in a book. Give me a family of eight siblings, and I will memorize their names and ages. But to be honest (and hopefully not to be condescending), in a present when many are kind of fuzzy on the distinction between WWI and WWII, and given that the wars do have a lot of similarities from the French point of view (fighting Germany for one), one of the more modern eras should have been left out.
And for me, that era would have to be Beatrice and the WWI time-slip. Beatrice was an amazing woman, and though I had never heard of her, I should have. So I tip my hat to Dray for rescuing her from the abyss of history. But the Beatrice sections were a bit on the boring side. Dinner with a nondescript character here, tea with another character there…. I could tell there were tie-ins with characters from the WWII era, but we weren’t invested enough in those characters, who were barely mentioned or described, for those connections to be exciting in the way that a not-too-distant time-slip can be. I’m not even sure why we started Beatrice’s storyline where we did, or why precious pages were devoted to so many dawdling scenes. What I mean is, it seemed to take forever to get to the point with her portions, and I’m not sure we ever did. (Note: In the Author’s Note, Dray discusses her historical sleuthing that led to some quite remarkable finds about Beatrice. But those would have been a better fit in a biographical nonfiction book. Here, they distracted from the overall thesis of the book. Those discoveries’ connection to Lafayette were too tenuous to sustain the thread between the time-slip.)
I was a little more interested in the WWII Marthe bits because France was so…apocalyptic during WWII. Marthe is bi-sexual, which seems to have bothered some reviewers, but there have been bi-sexual people throughout history. Marthe is a fictional character, so it was Dray’s only opportunity to change things up a bit given the historical characters she was working with. But Marthe’s segments were largely her considering her attraction for a woman who was heterosexual and married (so…it was a storyline that never could develop). It is not much of an exaggeration to say that fifty percent of the WWII bits are Marthe merely exploring this attraction in her mind. Unrequited love is not unusual, but it’s not necessarily very interesting. Again, precious time to be wasting in a massive book which was attempting to cover enormous ground.
For both of these eras, these things just struck me as so much dawdling given the War and Peace size of the book. We could have (and should have) started two-thirds of the way in for both the WWI and WWII plot lines and more thoroughly explored those times, and both would have been much better stories with a tighter connection to Lafayette. I will say that the WWII parts felt very WWII—so well done to Dray for capturing an era. And I also liked Marthe as a character. It was brave to make her crabby and a sort of anti-heroine, and that part worked very well.
The Adrienne parts (American and French Revolution) were clearly the strongest. I wondered if that was because it always should have just been Adrienne’s story. Dray even says in the Author’s Note that this was what was originally intended. (Although, again, very compelling to make a broad sweep of French history, especially WWII.) But due to the necessity of covering two other storylines, Adrienne’s part, which was the largest in terms of years covered and scope, was cheated. Whereas we would see a week here, a few weeks later there with the more modern storylines, we would often see for Adrienne’s, “Three years had passed, and…” Instead of the soaring, poignant statement about a real woman’s role in historical events which leaves you pondering history itself (like the aforementioned two earlier books), Adrienne’s reads more like a biography, albeit a very well-written and succinct one.
There is little plumbing of the depths of her relationship with Lafayette, which I don’t think would have been inappropriate given that they were sort of the reason we’re here reading this book at all. Said plumbing of the depths of a marriage, although not always happy or pleasant, was one of the absolute wonders of both Martha Jefferson Randolph’s and Eliza Hamilton’s stories. The Lafayettes’ marriage was historically fascinating, and, while I know it would have been a huge undertaking to have dived in with both feet to all of that foreignness, drama, passion, and devotion, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t deeply disappointed that we didn’t.
Something that the Adrienne parts did very well was convey the origins of the French Revolution. The starvation and effective slavery of the French people in order to give the nobles wealth which had persisted for hundreds of years is actually included here. Dray highlights this dichotomy and settles the score on that front.
Something that it didn’t do so well was…include Lafayette. It felt like we talked about him more than we actually saw him, which weakened the story a great deal. He was so excluded that, if you didn’t know the background, you would almost have to wonder what the big deal was, why we were even talking about all of this. While in the Eliza Hamilton and Martha Jefferson Randolph books, you really get the impression that these two women play the vital role in shaping the legacy of the men they loved and that they were a driving force behind many of their actions, that wasn’t necessarily the case here. Certainly Adrienne was a remarkable and brave woman, but Lafayette was the driving force behind this particular history, and I think it would have been okay to have admitted that, or at least to have given him a more vital role in the narrative. Instead, it was a thesis (the legacy of Lafayette) based on a background which was never firmly established.
So…as you can see, I struggled a bit to get through this one. It was well-written, and Dray pays attention to prose in a way that not many modern authors do. There were some stunning lines, especially those devoted to concepts of liberty. I always trust Dray historically; you are safe in her hands. But the book needed an editor clipping out chunks, adjusting timelines, accelerating pacing, and removing boring bits. For these failures, I lean toward blaming the publishing industry. The whole thing felt rushed, like if more time had been given to consider what worked and didn’t work, all of this would have been figured out and the corrections made. There was nothing overwhelmingly wrong with the book that couldn’t have been corrected by some very slight adjustments here and there. But this book was obviously going to be a big earner, banking on Lafayette’s popularity in Hamilton, and publishers have a relatively narrow window to capitalize on that before it fades.
In other words, what was a well-written, exhaustively researched book based on a breath-taking premise was a bit boring and rambling when it could have been a showstopper. The searing resonance that I expected just was not present. But I will continue reading Dray and absolutely hope she and Kamoie continue their exploration of the Revolutionary generation. And do I think you should read The Women of Chateau Lafayette? Despite my criticisms, yes. Lafayette’s story and message of freedom should be shouted from the rooftops. I have always thought this, and always will.