Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Book Review: The Women of Chateau Lafayette

By Jami Denison

Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it. It’s a common phrase, attributed to several 20th century statesmen, including Winston Churchill. But the more one learns about history, the more it seems that humans are doomed to repeat it regardless. 

The Women of Chateau Lafayette is historical fiction author Stephanie Dray’s latest offering, and it may be her broadest and most sweeping work yet. Dray, whose most well-known book might be My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, seems to have been inspired by her research on Alexander Hamilton to delve more deeply into the life of his friend and comrade-in-arms, the Marquis de Lafayette. While he’s credited as one of the founding fathers of liberty in both the United States and France, Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne, may have done just as much as her husband for the cause of freedom. 

The novel centers around two real-life figures and one composite character: Adrienne, whose story begins in 1774; Beatrice Chanler, an Aston by marriage who in 1914 wants America to fight on France’s behalf during World War I; and Marthe Simone, a French woman in 1940 whose life is changed by the Nazi occupation. The women are linked not just by Lafayette’s castle (which eventually Beatrice buys and turns into the orphanage where Marthe grows up and then teaches) but also by Lafayette’s ideals. The structure of the book makes it clear that, throughout history, people have been fighting the same wars: The aristocrats versus the peasants. The believers versus the non-believers. The oppressors versus the oppressed. 

Told in first person and hopping back and forth between centuries and decades, The Women of Chateau Lafayette strives to give a complete picture of each woman, beyond her work in wartime and her relationships. The Lafayettes’ early life in King Louis XVI’s court is portrayed; so is Beatrice’s tumultuous marriage and Marthe’s yearning for her friend Anna. But it’s the wars—the French Revolution and First and Second World Wars—that provide the conflicts that test and mold the women’s characters. As the novel progresses, Dray folds events and people together, so that Beatrice and Marthe are connected by more than the castle. 

While I’ve been a fan of World War II historical fiction for a while, my knowledge of the French Revolution and World War I is more limited—for the former, basically the Scarlett Johansson movie Marie Antoinette, the musical Les Miserables, and a few lines from Hamilton; for the latter, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and the German use of mustard gas. With Dray’s use of first person, I did feel lost several times during Adrienne’s narrative. Readers who are more well-versed in Lafayette’s history and the relationship between the American and French Revolutions will probably enjoy being so completely immersed in Adrienne’s point-of-view. For others like me, who spent World History with a novel in their lap, reading up on the time period and the players before cracking open the book is encouraged. Although Dray wrote an impressive author’s note at the end of the book detailing her research and the decisions she made about what to include and what to change in the story, it’s a coda, not an introduction. 

Another famous saying about history states that behind every great man is a great woman. I’m grateful to authors like Stephanie Dray for telling their stories. Her back list is impressive, and I plan on working my way through it. 

Thanks to Berkley for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Stephanie Dray:

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