An economist once told me President Harry Truman hated asking economists for advice. Whenever he asked his trusted economic advisors a question invariably they refused to respond with a direct answer, preferring to speak in seemingly contradictory terms to the likes of “on the one hand…on the other.” “Give me a one-handed economist” Truman complained, after being denied simple answers to how best address the nation’s economic woes.
America’s 33rd President probably wouldn’t like what I have to say about Carole DeSanti’s 2012 historical novel The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. because I, just like the Truman’s economists need two hands to say what I want to say. I found this novel challenging and frustrating at times, but not without merit. I’d been in the mood for quite some time to read a little French fiction written in the 19th century, or at the very least a novel set in France during the same period. Honestly, had I looked at its reviews on Amazon and Goodreads before borrowing an ebook through Overdrive I never would have opted to read it. But in the end I did, forcing myself to plod through The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. with mixed feelings.
Written in the style of a first person account, it tells the story of the eponymous heroine Eugenie R. beginning with her life as a farm girl on the brink of womanhood in rural Gascony, near the Pyrenees. Swept off her feet by a young, wealthy Parisian businessman passing through on business, she follows him to the French capital where he later abandons her. After a short stint as a model for an absinth-swilling, poverty-stricken painter, she soon finds herself broke and living on the streets. Alone, impoverished and youthfully naive, she’s soon coerced into prostitution and made to toil in one of the city’s many quasi-legally tolerated brothels. With no assets other than her beauty, wits and a few decent friends, she must find a way to survive in a time when women in her predicament had few, if any decent options.
On one hand, kudos to DeSanti for crafting a novel that reads like something written in the mid-19th century. I got the impression the author is fluent in French, or pretty damn close. Also, I’m guessing DeSanti put a hell of a lot of research into The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. Again, just like when I read Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests reading this novel transported me to another time and place and for that I’m thankful.
However, on the other hand, in her quest to craft such a novel in the style of that era, DeSanti has filled her with “purple prose.” Her excessive use of flowery language slows everything down. In addition, the author’s habit of repeatedly using untranslated French words and phrases is also a hinderance, leaving me wondering if it would have better to simply use English in many of those cases. (Thankfully, the book comes with a glossary. I also found the Kindle’s translation feature a huge help in deciphering many of these French words and phrases.)
There you have it. Perhaps The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. is one of those books I’m glad I read, even though I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped.