Viviane has grown up alone at the Chateau de Belisama-sur-le-Lac in Brittany, for her father, the Marquis de Ravoisier, lives at the court of Louis XVI in Versailles. After a hailstorm destroys the chateau’s orchards, gardens and fields an ambitious young Welshman, David Stronach, accepts the commission to plan the chateau’s new gardens in the hope of making his name as a landscape designer.
David and Viviane fall in love, but it is an impossible romance. Her father has betrothed her to a rich duke who she is forced to marry and David is hunted from the property. Viviane goes to court and becomes a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette and a member of the extended royal family. Angry and embittered, David sails away from England with Lord Macartney, the British ambassador, who hopes to open up trade with Imperial China.
In Canton, David hears the story of ‘The Blue Rose’, a Chinese fable of impossible love, and discovers the blood-red rose growing in the wintry garden. He realises that he is still in love with Viviane and must, somehow, find her.
I adored The Blue Rose. I was absolutely and completely under the spell of Forsyth’s beautiful storytelling from the first page to the very last words. There is just something about the way she writes that makes me feel so totally immersed in the story.
This book feels meticulously researched. I always feel like I’m learning so much when I read historical fiction like this, and this was no exception to that. I knew embarrassingly little about the French Revolution, and even less about trade relations between China and Europe, so the historical bits of the fascinated me as the story unfolded. I also loved reading the author’s note in the back of the book which tells us a bit about where its inspiration came from.
Something that has really struck me, and I think will stick with me, about The Blue Rose was the sympathetic light in which Marie-Antoinette is shown. As I mentioned above, I really didn’t know very much about the French Revolution – like literally just the Kirsten Dunst movie, “let them eat cake” kind of level of knowledge. Not only was it eye-opening for me to read about how long the Revolution dragged on, but Forsyth gave an amazing insight to what it must have been like for the Royal family during that time – in particular the terror for Marie-Antoinette as a woman and a mother of young children. That’s not to say the book is one-sided – I felt like it balanced this aspect really well with the desperation and frustration felt by the people of France that lead to their uprising. I also liked the bits of feminism throughout the story – for instance in Viviane’s frustration with her situation, and the roles women played in the revolution.
One of my favourite things about Kate Forsyth’s historical fiction is seeing how she has drawn inspiration from fairy tales and folk stories, and in this case poetry and fable, and how she weaves aspects of those through the narrative she is telling. Somehow this never feels to obvious or contrived, and I loved the subtle ways that Viviane and David’s love story reflects both the medieval French poem (Le Roman de la Rose) that Viviane shares at the start of the story and the fable David later hears in France.
In case it’s not clear, I thought this was an absolute delight from start to finish. I couldn’t be happier to have had the chance to get an early copy so that I could rave about it here, and I can’t wait for everyone to read it so that I can talk more about it! (I also can’t wait to hear Kate talk about the book at the session she is doing at the Canberra Writers Festival in August!)
I gave it five perfect stars.
The Blue Rose by Kate Forsyth
Source: Free copy from Penguin Random House Australia
Imprint: Vintage Australia
Category: Historical fiction
Format: Trade Paperback