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Season of De-Light
on 17 November 2011
It is 1788. It is Paris and, with Asa Ardleigh, heroine of Katharine McMahon's latest historical novel, we are enjoying the delights of the salon of Madame de Genlis. Everything is sumptuous, from the "swagged skirts" to the "marbled-floored entrance hall." It is here that our heroine meets dashing Didier Paulin. Instantly, they fall in love. Asa's family know nothing of her love for Didier and set about finding her a suitable husband. Enter Mr Harry Shackleford, the most elligble bachelor, a man to whom Asa's family's estate is entailed. A marriage to Shackleford would secure the family's financial needs forever.
And so a French maid for Asa is hired, someone who will teach her how to become 'a lady'. And if this sounds a little too much like transforming an 18th century ladette, cast that instantly from your mind. An 18th century lady must know how to use a fan, to paint, to dance and play the piano, and to embroider. Perhaps we feel, like Asa, that during this period of the story we are biding our time, waiting for something to happen. Fast foward five years and, unable to cast Didier from her mind, Asa returns secretly to France, by now in the grip of revolution.
No, I am not describing a chick-lit style bodice-ripper but a magnificent story which takes the reader to and fro between Georgian England - with its manor houses, farm houses and recently-built mansions - and revolutionary France.
This story brings vividly to life that tumultuous period in a gripping and realistic way and whilst it doesn't dwell on the violence, the obscene, neither does it shy away from it. Parts are written in an almost documentary style: we are privy to snippets of conversation; we are eye-witnesses to savagery, intrigue, death and destruction. It is the extremes in this book - the grandeur of pre-revolutionary France, the idyllic English countryside, and the stench of civil war - that take a straightforward story, that of a young woman in search of the man she loves, out of the ordinary and turn it into something special. If you read only one other book this year, make it this one. I do not think you will be disappointed.