A great combination of history, adventures, and topics that continue to resonate.

The Blue. A Novel. - Nancy Bilyeau

I am writing this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you’re looking for reviews, I recommend you check her amazing site here), and I thank her and the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

As soon as I read the description of this novel I was intrigued by the topic. I’ve read about the different fancies and frenzies that have taken societies (or at least the upper parts of them) by storm over history. Suddenly, something “new” becomes popular, and, especially if it is difficult to obtain, people will go to almost any extreme to get hold of it and then use it to their advantage. People have made fortunes (and got ruined) over the years by pursuing and purchasing items as diverse as tulips, silk, spices, exotic animals, dies, precious stones, gold, and indeed, porcelain. (I know some things don’t change much, and a few items that have replaced those in modern society easily come to mind). Some of them seem almost impossible to believe when looked at from the distance of time, especially when the object of desire is something with very little (if any) practical use, and it comes at a time of crisis and historical upheaval, where more important things are at stake. The morality of such matters is one of the more serious aspects of this novel, and it is compellingly explored.

The author, who has a background in history, does a great job of marrying the historical detail of the period (making us feel as if we were in the London of the late XVIII century first, then in Derby, and later in France) with a fairly large cast of characters and their adventures, weaving a mystery (or several) into a story that reminded me of some of my favourite novels by Alexandre Dumas.  

Guinevere, the protagonist, is a young woman who does not seem to fit in anywhere. She is a Huguenot, and although born in England, she is the daughter of French-refugees (and that is a particularly interesting angle of the story, especially because the author is inspired by her own heritage), and is considered a French woman by her English neighbours, a particularly difficult state of affairs at a time when England and France are at war. Her people had to escape France due to religious persecution and she feels no love for France, and yet, she is not fully accepted in England either, being in a kind-of-limbo, although she lives amongst people of her faith at the beginning of the novel. Guinevere narrates her tale in the first-person, and she is insistent in writing her own story, at a time when that was all-but-impossible for a woman. I have recently read a book which mentioned Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and I could not avoid thinking about Wollstonecraft (who, like Guinevere, was born in Spitalfields and lived in the same era), and her own complex and controversial life as I read this. Guinevere is not a writer but an artist, and she feels constrained by the limitations imposed on her by the fact of being a woman. She wants to paint like Hogarth, not just produce pretty flowers to decorate silk. But that was considered impossible and improper for a woman at the time. She also wants to pursue knowledge and is attracted to revolutionary ideas and to dangerous men. She is eager to learn, intelligent, but also ruled by her desires and fears; she is stubborn and at times makes decisions that might seem selfish and unreasonable, but then, what other options did she have? Personally, I find Guinevere a fascinating character, a woman of strong convictions, but also able to look at things from a different perspective and acknowledge that she might have been wrong. She is a deep thinker but sometimes she cannot control her emotions and her impulses. She has a sense of morality but does things that could cost her not only her reputation but also her life and that of those she loves. And she ponders and hesitates, feels guilty and changes her mind, falls in love and in lust, and feels attracted and fascinated by driven and intellectually challenging men and by bad boys as well (a bit like the moth she masterfully paints, she gets too close to the flame sometimes).

Guinevere is not always sympathetic, but that is part of what makes her a strong character, and not the perfect heroine that would be unrealistic and impossible to imagine in such circumstances. There are a number of other characters, some that we learn more about than others, and I was particularly fond of Evelyn, who becomes her friend in Derby, and whose life shares some parallels with that of Guinevere, and although I liked her love interest, Thomas Sturbridge, a man who keeps us guessing and is also driven by his desire for knowledge, I was fascinated by Sir Gabriel Courtenay. He is far from the usual villain, and he has hidden motives and desires that keep protagonist and readers guessing. He entices and threatens, he offers the possibility of knowledge and protection one moment and is ruthless and violent the next. He is one of those characters that are not fully explained and one can’t help but keep thinking about and wondering what more adventures they might go on to experience once the book is over.

There are also real historical figures in the book. I have mentioned painters, and we also meet and hear about a fair number of other people, some that will be quite familiar to readers interested in that historical period. The author is well informed, her research shines through the novel, and I was particularly fascinated by the history of Derby porcelain (now Royal Crown Derby). Her descriptions of the workings of a porcelain factory of the period, the actual running of the business and the machinations behind it make for an enthralling read, even for people who might not be particularly interested in porcelain (I am). I have already mentioned the adventures, and there are plenty of those. Although I do not want to go into the plot in detail (and the description offers more than enough information about it), readers only need to know that there are mysteries (not only the famous Blue of the title), impersonations, spies, criminals, robberies, books with hidden compartments, false letters, murders, kidnappings, experiments, plenty of painting (watercolour, oils…), secret formulas, wars, surreptitious journeys, imprisonments, philosophical debates, and even a wonderful party. There is also romance and even sex, although the details are kept behind closed doors. In sum, there isn’t a dull moment.

Notwithstanding all that, the writing is smooth and flows well, and although there are occasional words or expressions of the period, these are seemingly incorporated into the text and do not cause the reader to stumble. There are moments of reflection, waiting, and contemplation, and others when the action moves fast, there is danger and the pace quickens. I think most readers will find the ending satisfying, and although I liked it (and would probably have cheered if it was a movie), it had something of the sleight of hand that did not totally convince me (or perhaps I should say of the Deus-ex-machina, that I am sure would be an expression the character in question would approve of. And no, I’m not going to reveal anything else).

This book is a treat for any lover of historical fiction, especially those who like adventures reminiscent of times past, and who enjoy a well-researched novel which offers plenty to think about and more than a parallel with current events. A great combination of history, adventure, and topics to ponder upon. Although this is the first book by Bilyeau I’ve read, I’m sure it won’t be the last one.