The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (re-read)

When I joined the Classics Club in 2012 and put together the list of books I wanted to read, I decided that, whichever order I read the others in, I would save my re-read of The Count of Monte Cristo until last. It’s one of my favourite books (I had already read it twice) and I thought it would be something to look forward to, even if some of the other classics on my list turned out to be disappointing.

Picking it up to start reading for the third time, I did have a few doubts – there’s always a chance that a book you once loved might have lost its magic – but of course I needn’t have worried. The opening line (“On the 24th of February 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples”) is hardly the most scintillating or memorable in literature but reading it, knowing what is to come, gives me the same feeling as when I re-read the first line of other favourite books, such as Rebecca (“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”), Jane Eyre (“There was no possibility of taking a walk that day”) or Watership Down (“The primroses were over”).

Anyway, back to The Count of Monte Cristo! Our hero, or anti-hero (he can be considered to be both), is Edmond Dantès, a young sailor who, at the beginning of the novel, feels that he is the luckiest man in the world. Not only is his marriage to the beautiful Mercédès approaching, but following the death of his captain, he is also about to be given a ship to command. Things couldn’t be better…until the day of his wedding, when he is arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the king with the exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Of course, Edmond has done nothing of the sort – it is all part of a plot by his jealous shipmate, Danglars, and his rival for Mercédès’ love, Fernand Mondego.

A third man, Villefort, has reasons of his own for wanting Dantès imprisoned and safely out of the way, so with these three enemies ranged against him, Edmond is thrown into a dungeon in the Château d’If where he remains for the next fourteen years. Although he does eventually find a way to escape, his life has been ruined: all of his hopes and dreams have been destroyed, Mercédès is lost to him and he can never get back the years of his youth that have been stolen from him. Vowing to punish his enemies for what they have done, Edmond transforms himself into the Count of Monte Cristo and launches an intricate and carefully planned system of revenge.

The events I have described above take up only a relatively small section of the novel; most of the book is devoted to following the Count as he sets his plans into action. It takes a long time before he begins to see results, but if there is one thing he has learned in prison it is how to be patient – and so he is prepared to spend years devising the perfect methods of revenge. This means the reader is faced with a series of seemingly unrelated subplots and a huge cast of characters; it can be quite overwhelming on a first read, but when you’re reading for the second or third time you can appreciate how things that appear to be irrelevant actually have great significance. This time round, without the same urgency to turn the pages to ‘see what happens next’, I was able to read at a slower pace and enjoy some of the episodes I had previously seen as unnecessarily long digressions, such as Franz and Albert’s adventures in Rome, La Carconte and the diamond ring, and the story of the bandit Luigi Vampa.

Does the Count achieve his aims – and is he happy with the final outcome? I’m not going to tell you (and if you haven’t read the book I’m sure you don’t want me to) but I will say that he does have some doubts along the way, particularly when he discovers that innocent people he never intended to hurt have also become caught up in his web of revenge. “What a fool I was,” said he, “not to tear my heart out on the day I resolved to avenge myself”. I always find it sad to see how he has changed as a result of his imprisonment – when we first meet him again after his escape from the Château d’If, the lively, optimistic young man has disappeared, to be replaced by someone much more cynical and bitter – but towards the end of the book there are signs that the old Edmond is still there, beneath the surface. Most people think of this as a revenge novel, which it certainly is, but we should remember that the Count also takes care to help and reward the friends who stayed loyal to him throughout everything.

Although The Count of Monte Cristo was published around the same time as Dumas’ d’Artagnan series, I think this is a much more mature novel, dealing with serious issues and raising some thought-provoking questions. There are moments of reflection and philosophy like this:

“The friends that we have lost do not repose in the bosom of the earth, but are buried deep in our hearts, and it has been thus ordained that we may always be accompanied by them.”

And this:

“It is the way of weakened minds to see everything through a black cloud. The soul forms its own horizons; your soul is darkened, and consequently the sky of the future appears stormy and unpromising.”

And this:

“Joy to hearts which have suffered long is like the dew on the ground after a long drought; both the heart and the ground absorb that beneficent moisture falling on them, and nothing is outwardly apparent.”

The novel takes the reader through a range of emotions, from anger to pity to frustration to sadness (some of Edmond’s scenes with a certain other character always bring tears to my eyes, thinking of everything he has lost and can never regain). As always with Dumas, though, you can expect an exciting and entertaining read, so there are also murders, poisonings, court cases and duels, thefts, anonymous letters, illegitimate children and searches for buried treasure. Not everything that happens feels entirely realistic and you do need to suspend disbelief now and then, but I don’t mind that when a book is so enjoyable to read.

I haven’t said very much about the other characters in the book (and apart from Edmond Dantès himself, whom I have always found fascinating and complex), I have to admit that most of them don’t have a lot of depth. There are two, however, that I do particularly love. The first is the Abbé Faria, a fellow prisoner of Edmond’s in the Château d’If, an extraordinary man who acts as inspiration, adviser and teacher to Edmond and without whom he would have lost the will to live. The other is Monsieur Noirtier, an elderly man who has been left unable to walk and talk, but who devises an unusual form of communication and forms a special bond with his granddaughter, Valentine.

There is so much more I would like to say about this wonderful book, but I would have to give spoiler warnings, and I think this post is long enough now anyway! I will leave you to read The Count of Monte Cristo for yourself, if you haven’t already. I know the length of the book can seem off-putting, but I wouldn’t recommend reading an abridged edition as the story is so complex I think you would be missing out on a lot.

This is book 100/100 read for the Classics Club, which means I have now completed my list! I’ll be posting a summary of my Classics Club experience soon.

Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

As some of you may know, I am currently working my way through all of the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since the prize began in 2010. Allan Massie’s End Games in Bordeaux appeared on the 2016 list, but on discovering that it was the final book in a series of four, I was faced with a dilemma: should I just read the book that I needed to read for the prize or should I do as I usually prefer to do and start from the beginning of the series? In the end I decided to at least try the first book, Death in Bordeaux, in the hope that I would enjoy it enough to want to read the other three anyway.

The novel opens in Bordeaux in March 1940, with Superintendent Jean Lannes investigating the death of an old friend, Gaston Chambolley, whose mutilated body has been found in a street near the railway station. Gaston was homosexual and Lannes’s superiors are happy to assume that this was some sort of sex crime, but Lannes himself is sure there must be another explanation. The dead man’s sister-in-law has gone missing after becoming caught up in the political intrigue surrounding the Spanish Civil War, but as soon as Lannes suggests that her disappearance could be linked in some way with Gaston’s murder, he is ordered to drop his investigations immediately. Lannes, however, knows that he won’t be able to rest until he finds out who killed his friend and why.

In a seemingly unrelated case, he is also called in to help the elderly Comte de Grimaud identify the sender of some threatening letters he has received. As he gets to know the various members of the Comte’s dysfunctional family, Lannes begins to uncover some links with the other case he is working on – and that is all I will say about the plot, as it quickly becomes quite complex and I couldn’t go any further without spoiling the story.

All of this unfolds during the early stages of World War II – a period in which, at first, very little seems to be happening despite France having declared war on Germany. Soon, though, France becomes occupied, refugees from Paris begin to arrive in Bordeaux, and Lannes and his wife become increasingly afraid for their eldest son, Dominique, who is at the Front. While the author does provide a lot of historical detail, describing the major events and political decisions, and setting the story in its context, the focus is always on how the war is affecting the lives of our main characters: Lannes’ wife, Marguerite, writes letters to Dominique which she knows she’ll never send; their younger children, Alain and Clothilde, try to decide how they feel about the occupation of their country; and Alain’s new Jewish friend, Léon, wonders for how much longer he will be safe in France.

By the end of the novel, the war is still in progress and the personal stories of the characters mentioned above (and many others) have not been resolved. I believe that in the next book in the series, Dark Summer in Bordeaux, we rejoin some of the characters introduced in this one, so for that reason I’m glad I decided to start at the beginning. I can’t say that I loved this book – I found it slow and a bit too drawn out in places and it didn’t really work for me as a murder mystery. As a portrayal of life in Occupied France, though, it is an interesting, quietly atmospheric read. I liked it enough to want to continue with the second novel – and hopefully then the third and the fourth.

This is Book #3 for the R.I.P. XII challenge.

A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

It’s been a few years since I last read a Susanna Kearsley book and as I still have two or three left to read I decided to include her most recent, A Desperate Fortune, on my 20 Books of Summer list. There are some connections between this book and her previous one, The Firebird, but they both stand alone and it’s not necessary to read them in order.

Like many of Kearsley’s novels, A Desperate Fortune is set in two different time periods. First, in the modern day, we meet Sara Thomas, a young woman with a special talent for solving mathematical puzzles and breaking codes. Sara also has Asperger’s and relies on the friendship and support of her cousin Jacqui. Jacqui works in the publishing business and when one of her authors, the historian Alistair Scott, asks for help in deciphering a journal written in code, it is Sara who gets the job.

The other thread of the novel takes place in 1732 and follows the story of the diary-writer, twenty-one-year-old Mary Dundas, who is half French and half Scottish. Mary’s family are Jacobites – supporters of the exiled James Stuart, who they believe is the rightful King James VIII of Scotland and III of England. Setting off on a journey across France with her brother Nicolas one day, Mary has no idea what he has planned for her, and is shocked to find herself caught up in a plot to protect a fellow Jacobite who is on the run from the law. Her diary tells of the lengths she goes to, the disguises she adopts and the dangers she faces in trying to conceal her companion’s true identity.

These two storylines alternate throughout the book, so that we read several entries from Mary’s journal, followed by Sara’s experiences in decoding it. Both women are interesting characters – and there are a few parallels between the two – but I found Mary’s story much more gripping and couldn’t help thinking that it would have worked just as well on its own without Sara’s framing it. There’s a romance for each woman too, but again, it was Mary’s that I found most convincing; although I did like Sara’s love interest, it all seemed to happen too quickly and too conveniently.

It was interesting to revisit the subject of the Jacobites, who also feature in The Firebird – although the two books explore the topic from very different perspectives, with this one being set in France and the other in Russia. The author’s note at the end of the book is long and comprehensive, discussing some of the choices made in writing this novel and explaining which parts of the story are based on fact and which are fictional. I was surprised to see how many of the characters I’d assumed were purely imaginary were actually inspired by real people!

I did enjoy A Desperate Fortune, though not as much as most of the other Susanna Kearsley novels I’ve read. My favourites seem to be the ones with supernatural elements, such as The Firebird, The Rose Garden and Mariana. I always like Kearsley’s writing style, though – there’s something so comforting about it, so easy and effortless to read. It’s the same feeling that I get when I pick up a book by Mary Stewart. I’m looking forward now to reading my remaining two Kearsley novels, The Shadowy Horses and Sophia’s Secret (the UK title for The Winter Sea).

This is book 12/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge. (I’m aiming for 15 now, I think – anything over that will be a bonus!)

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran

So far my feelings about Michelle Moran’s novels have been very mixed. Cleopatra’s Daughter was interesting, but felt too light and insubstantial, The Second Empress was much better, but I had one or two problems again with Rebel Queen. I had hoped Mata Hari (also published as Mata Hari’s Last Dance) would be another good one, but unfortunately it turned out to be my least favourite of the four that I’ve read.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Mata Hari was that she was an exotic dancer who was accused of spying during the First World War. I felt sure that she must have been a fascinating woman and I was looking forward to learning more about her. And I did learn a lot from this novel. Mata Hari narrates her story (fictional, but based on fact) in her own words and tells us all about her dancing career, her experiences of life in European cities such as Paris and Berlin, and her many romantic relationships, including several with military personnel which led to her being accused of passing secrets to Germany.

However, I wanted to get to know the woman behind the newspaper headlines and the seductive costumes – Margaretha Zelle, or M’greet as she is called in the novel – and although she does confide in us now and then about her childhood in the Netherlands (she did not come from an Indian background, as she tried to claim), her time in Java during her unhappy marriage to Rudolf MacLeod and her heartbreak at the loss of her children, I never felt very close to Mata Hari and didn’t gain a very good understanding of the person she really was.

The one aspect of Mata Hari’s life that Moran does successfully capture is her loneliness; I didn’t like her and had very little sympathy for her as she seemed so immature and selfish, but I could see that she was not a happy person and that her character had been shaped by her earlier experiences. The descriptions of Mata Hari’s various dances are also well done, particularly one that she performs with a live snake while dressed as Cleopatra. The novel is strangely lacking in period detail, though, and apart from the obvious references to the war and to other famous people of the time – her rival dancer, Isadora Duncan, for example – I didn’t feel that there was much sense of time or place at all.

The book is also disappointingly short, with under 300 pages in the edition I read. If you just want a basic overview of Mata Hari’s life and career, it’s perfectly adequate, but for something deeper you will need to look elsewhere. The section of the novel covering her spying activities is very brief and feels almost like an afterthought, which is a shame as this is the part of the story which should have been the most interesting. Even on finishing the book, I’m not completely clear on what we are supposed to assume; was Mata Hari really a spy or was she just someone who had made some poor decisions and been carried along by events outside her control? To be honest, long before we reached this point I had lost interest anyway and had already decided that I would need to look for another book on Mata Hari one day. Has anyone read The Spy by Paulo Coelho?

The Empress of Hearts by E. Barrington

The Empress of Hearts was originally published in 1928 and was one of several historical novels written by E. Barrington (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, who also wrote under the name Lily Adams Beck).  It is described on the cover as “a romance of Marie Antoinette”, but I think that description is slightly misleading.  Marie Antoinette does appear in the novel as a major character, but the focus is really on the scandal known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was thought to be a factor leading to the French Revolution.    
  
The story centres around a diamond necklace created by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, commissioned by Louis XV of France in 1772 as a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry.  However, by the time the necklace is ready to be sold to the King, Louis has died and du Barry has been sent away from court.  Boehmer and Bassenge hope the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, will wear it instead, but when her husband, Louis XVI, offers to buy it for her, she refuses, unwilling to appear extravagant and frivolous when the money could be better spent on other things.  Enter Jeanne de la Motte, an ambitious young woman who sees an opportunity to make herself rich and acquire the necklace for herself in the Queen’s name.  The ensuing scandal will damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation and discredit the French monarchy in the eyes of the public:        

Marie Antoinette rose from her chair and moved toward the inner room, holding herself together with an effort so tense that for the moment grace was dead and she moved with stiff, short steps like an old woman. At the door she turned: “Did I not tell you that there would be no need for poison? They will kill me with calumny.”

As you would expect with a book from the 1920s, the writing style is rather different from most modern historical fiction novels; it is more formal and more detailed but, unfortunately, it is also quite dry.  Although I had heard of the Diamond Necklace Affair before, I hadn’t read about it in any depth, so I found The Empress of Hearts an interesting read from that perspective, but as a work of fiction it is less effective – like the other novel I’ve read by Barrington, Glorious Apollo, it would probably have worked better as non-fiction.  We are given large amounts of factual information and as a result the plot moves very slowly and lacks the drama, excitement and tension that should have been present given the subject of the story. 

The characters are not the most vibrant and life-like either, although they had the potential to be fascinating, particularly Jeanne, as the villain of the novel, and Cardinal de Rohan, another prominent figure implicated in the plot.  I was intrigued by the role the Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro plays in the story – in reality, it seems that although he was arrested and questioned, it’s uncertain how much involvement he actually had in the Affair – but again, I think there were missed opportunities here.

I’m aware that Alexandre Dumas also wrote a novel about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Queen’s Necklace.  As a fan of Dumas, I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how he approaches the same subject.

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!