The New York Times Book Review
An Empire of Her Own
‘The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.,’ by Carole DeSanti
By NANCY KLINE
Everyone in Second Empire Paris knows the name of Zola’s celebrated courtesan, Nana, “with all the lilting vivacity of its two syllables.” Not so her sister under the skin, the fallen heroine of Carole DeSanti’s provocative historical novel, “The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R.” Forced to labor in the same vineyards as her flamboyant contemporary, Eugénie does so in obscurity. She’s no celebrated “grande horizontale,” even though she shares the name of France’s empress — and even though one of her lovers makes her famous with a painting that wins a prize in the Salon of 1861. His picture’s title: “An Unknown Girl.
DeSanti’s narrator is but one of thousands who arrived in the city “as I did, . . . followed their desire and need into the world and through the Paris walls. Hiked up skirts over the street debris; pulled meager shawls around their shoulders, and defiance and passion even closer. . . . And then the fun began — the real game of cat-and-mouse, the one you play for your life.”
Eugénie comes from a village in the southwest of France, where it was her task to force-feed the geese so their distended livers could be harvested for “the dish of kings,” foie gras. Toward the end of the process, she tells us, “burdened by their size,” the birds “just fluffed down on straw — flapping fighters turned into complaisant creatures. During their last days they could not even stand; just swiveled their necks and opened their beaks for the corn buckets.”
Later, when we see her after a night’s work in a “maison de tolérance” in the Marais, dragging her “tender, insulted body” to the attic for a few hours of sleep, this earlier vision of grotesquely abused animals returns. And later still, promoted to trafficker herself, it’s handy that she “knew how to bring a fatted duck to market.” Although now it’s a different species she supplies to “the empire’s appetites; feeding the dragon’s maw and avoiding the flames myself with a system ill-founded and corrupt to its heights.”
It’s hard, at times, to love DeSanti’s version of a Mother Courage figure as she out-procures the procuress who first registered her as a prostitute at the prefecture, which “meant erasure from the world of possibility.” But DeSanti also makes us understand that Eugénie is as trapped as any fatted bird in this society that reeks, like the “business parlor” where the madams interview their employees, of the “sweet, mothy odor of bank notes; the acrid tang of silver.” In a culture that prides itself on being civilized but treats women and the poor (often synonymous) barbarously, it’s no accident that one of Eugénie’s protectors is a Confederate slave owner from Louisiana.
What helps save her, beyond her own resourcefulness, is the community of women in which she finds herself — unlike Zola’s Nana, who is an isolate and a destroyer. By the end of Nana’s career, Zola writes, “like those monsters of ancient times whose fearful domains were covered with skeletons, she rested her feet on human skulls and was surrounded by catastrophes.”
DeSanti’s voice and vision are less apocalyptic and more feminist. If Zola’s book is, as he claimed, “the poem of male desires,” hers is the poem of female desires: sexual, artistic, political, intellectual, maternal. And all these unfold amid a richness of historical detail, rendered in elegant 19th-century-style prose that convincingly transports us beyond the date when Nana disappears, at the start of the Franco-Prussian War, through the siege of Paris and the fall of the Second Empire, to the hope-filled yet tragic Paris Commune and beyond.
Curled Up With a Good Book Review
by Luan Gaines
DeSanti breathes life into an era rife with change, a fallen girl seduced by love in her small village hugging the Pyrenees, a goose girl unprepared for the passions that sweep reason aside. Ensconced in a Paris hotel in 1860, her lover leaves, failing to return as promised. Sixteen-year-old Eugenie Rigault is alone—with child and without means or opportunity in a city of excess pre-Franco-Prussian War. Female morals dictated by the rigid Code Civil, Eugenie is conscripted into a brothel, hopeless and penniless, assigned to a place in an upscale establishment, registered with the Prefecture, marked by her new profession in an unforgiving society.
This is the story of Eugenie’s journey through the lowest of circumstances from her love affair with an inconstant aristocrat, the birth of her daughter, and the relinquishing of that beloved child to a system blind to a mother’s claims, when that woman bears the taint of prostitution. From the hedonistic years of the Second Empire of Napoleon III to war with Mexico, an arrangement with an American Son of the Confederacy in Paris to garner support for the South’s cause, the siege of Paris by the Prussian Army, and an abiding relationship with the enigmatic and beautiful Jolie, a mentor from those early brothel days, Eugenie makes her way through society with the limitations of her profession. She uses her writing skills to avoid unsavory commitments yet remains devoted to the women who have supported her through the most terrible of times.
Never free of the longing to reunite with her daughter, Eugenie’s life parallels the city of Paris on a collision course with history, seething with poverty and discontent while the rich temporize on the eve of defeat: “It is a weak society that depends on wars abroad and selling women’s bodies at home.” After the first rush of passion with the faithless aristocrat in her village, Eugenie faces the dire truth of her situation: “I began to shed… the fur-matted, pond-bathed, forest-floor earthy roughness in which I had lived all my life.” Forced to register by the law, Eugenie is marked forever by that first profession.
Melding the personal struggle of her protagonist with the colorful canvas of a city in flux, DeSanti creates a world of rogues, romantics, poseurs and politicians, where wealth and privilege purchase freedom from the despair and daily tragedies of the poor. Never free of fear either emotionally or financially, Eugenie grows into herself in this hostile environment in spite of her circumstances. Buoyed by Jolie’s constancy and the generosity of other fallen women, she reunites with her first lover only to face another betrayal and learns the dimension of her folly: “My efforts added up to the story of one for whom all the stories had failed.”
Unflagging, DeSanti’s heroine is reborn from the detritus of her mistakes and survives war, chaos and personal tragedy in the streets of Paris, drawn into the revolution long-stirring in the hearts of frustrated Parisians. Related in vivid detail, Paris flounders, rises to its own defense and recreates itself—as does Eugenie, a fallen woman, an artist’s muse and a revolutionary’s lover, but mostly a devoted mother and a daughter of France.
WOMEN’S REVIEW OF BOOKS
FAITH MIDDLETON’S BOOK SHOW
THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
New Novelist, Great Book
By Gina Barreca
Yes, I know you’re busy and that already have plenty of books to read, but—trust me on this one—you must get a copy of Carole DeSanti’s new novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. All right, so don’t trust me: trust Publishers Weekly , Valerie Martin, Deborah Harkness, Sarah Blake, Mireille Guiliano, and Fay Weldon, all of whom love the book.
Weldon says DeSanti has written ” a book to you make you think,” calling it “a magnificent novel in scope and achievement” where “death does its worst, passion wears itself out, civilization moves a notch forward, and with it, or because of it, female understanding of what it is to be a woman.”
Filled with the kind of historically and politically fascinating detail that made books like A.S. Byatt’s Possession a bestseller and a ripping good read, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is set in 19th-century Paris. You have that delicious sense that you’re right there and that you’ve met these characters before—but never really known them before encountering them in DeSanti’s pages.
In a way, DeSanti acknowledges as much when she talks about how she came to write the novel. After losing her “first real job” in publishing, “I had time on my hands, was reading for the GRE’s and I procured a battered old copy of Zola’s Nana. I devoured it in a night—but it also bothered me: Zola’s heroine had no soul, no interior life—and I ‘knew’ (wherever this knowledge came from) that something was wrong, here.” By creating the inner life and densely detailed world of Eugénie, she fills in the missing pieces; by offering a look inside the “courtesan culture” of brothel life (brothels were called “tolerances” because, while not strictly legal, they were indeed tolerated by the culture), she gives us a thoroughly mesmerizing view of the taboo and allows us to hear what for so long has remained in whispers.
Link to full review: http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/new-novelist-great-book-carole-desanti/45223
DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE
Leverett author’s novel shines light on a young prostitute’s life in 19th-century Paris
By Steve Pfarrer
What’s unique about the book, aside from its detailed recreation of Parisian life in the mid-19th century, is that it’s told from Eugénie’s viewpoint. DeSanti, who’s long been a champion both of women’s literature and of 19th-century novels, says the inspiration for “The Unruly Passions” came in part from reading Emile Zola’s “Nana.” That tale is built around a young Parisian prostitute from the period who remains a cipher even though she’s at the center of the novel, she says.
“She’s not allowed to tell her side of the story,” said DeSanti. “She’s really just a symbol for this larger point that (Zola) was trying to make about French society at that time … I really wanted to know more about her inner life, what she felt and thought.”
A poetic loss of innocence
Review by Karen Cullotta
In her debut novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., author Carole DeSanti has crafted an evocative story of a young woman’s courageous and reckless coming of age amid the rollicking mayhem of France during and after the Second Empire. While Eugenie’s escapades unfold in the tumultuous era between 1860-1871, her refusal to relinquish her passions and determination to survive are contemporary themes, as is the heroine’s struggle to define her roles as daughter, mother, lover and friend.
While the travails and tribulations afflicting young Eugenie and her compatriots might prove a bit daunting for some readers, DeSanti’s narrative is infused with poetry, lending an earthy realism to even the most complex scenarios.
“To wear mourning is not necessarily to mourn,” writes DeSanti. “To walk at the head of the procession, to bow one’s head over the grave is not necessarily to understand the weight and change of death. Silk or crepe, leather or kid gloves, paste or true jewels . . . a mix of gray and lavender in half a year, or scarlet in a week, whatever the latest fashion codes dictated—none of it is to mourn; for me, it was a reawakening.”
Indeed, DeSanti, the vice president at large at the Penguin Group, who is said to have been “clandestinely” writing this novel for more than a decade, has clearly done her homework. Prior to starting chapter one, readers will certainly want to pore over two special sections tucked at the back of the book: a historical timeline of France, circa 1848-1871, and a brief glossary of French terms. But one need not be a fervent Francophile to appreciate the injection of little known terms like ami-coeur, a term for partner in an intimate relationship.
The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. is far from a sentimental homage to the lost France of the 19th century. DeSanti’s Paris is exhilarating and art-loving, albeit absinthe-drenched and riddled with venereal diseases and violence, while France’s foie gras country is a pastoral paradise that’s plagued by provincial mores and superstitions.
Above all, readers will appreciate DeSanti’s aptitude for capturing the timeless themes of youthful insouciance, lost innocence and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, for better or for worse.
Sheri Holman for Amazon.com
Carole DeSanti, longtime editor of literary superstars like Dorothy Allison and Terry McMillan, has been leading a secret life. For the past ten years she’s been crafting a novel of her own, and The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is as much a personal meditation on women’s emotional and professional tradeoffs as it is a sweeping saga of the decadent Paris that spawned Madame Bovary.
Lured to the city by the empty promises of a ne’er-do-well nobleman, sixteen-year-old goose girl Eugénie Rigault finds herself abandoned, destitute, and, unsurprisingly, pregnant. Life with a bohemian painter brings her brief fame, but soon enough, Eugénie must choose between starvation or the illicit sorority of Les Deux Soeurs, one of Paris’s notorious state-legislated tolerated houses. Over a decade marked by absinthe-soaked parties and the famine of the Franco-Prussian War, Eugénie struggles to reconcile the two parts of her divided self–”the one that observed the world but could not act; the other that moved heedlessly, lacking a sense of the world’s consequence.”
In DeSanti’s deeply sensual novel, the foie gras melts on the tongue and the perfumes threaten, at times, to overwhelm. But her sharp eye for the hypocrisies of power dynamics elevates this novel far above the hothouse. In a meeting with the radical Communards, Eugénie finds an uneasy kinship. “To look into their eyes…. was to feel the creep of something familiar. Of deals made far above one’s head, out of one’s view; destiny on the chopping block.” Like the painting that made her famous, Eugénie is the quintessential “Unknown Girl,” at the mercy of social forces inexorable and incomprehensible, doing the best she can to get by.
While there’s plenty of satisfying hetero- and homoerotic groping, don’t read this fiercely intelligent novel if you simply want a good love story dressed up in period clothes. Read it for the complex sexual politics, lush language, and mirror onto our own excessive, heedless times.
Sheri Holman is the award-winning author of The Dress Lodger, The Mammoth Cheese, and Witches on the Road Tonight
Penguin Group v-p and editor-at-large DeSanti presents an eclectic mix of ideas and social history in her debut novel. At 17, Eugénie Rigault follows a seducer to Paris, but quickly finds herself on her own. She moves from artist’s model to prostitute, takes lovers, and gives birth to—and gives away—a daughter. In five sections that each quote Céleste Mogador’s scandalous Memoirs and unfold against the mid-19th-century turmoil of the Second Empire, DeSanti chronicles Eugénie’s attempts to build a life for herself, survive as a woman, and reclaim her daughter. Eugénie, an admittedly unreliable narrator who refuses to accept advice or learn from her mistakes, is difficult to root for; she acts on impulse and expects to be rescued (and she is). But readers will find passion in the writing; DeSanti’s descriptions are full of lush, sensual detail. In the brothel, though she doesn’t give a sense of the men or the quotidian grind, DeSanti shines in depicting the dynamics between the girls, the business, and Eugénie’s internal conflict. Though it’s hard to care for such a self-centered heroine, the sweeping, fascinating epic is full of drama and beauty. Agent: Robin Strauss, the Robin Strauss Agency. (Mar.)