by Jean Teule
translated by Alison Anderson
This book stinks. Not since Patrick Suskind’s PERFUME has a novel reeked this much. Set among the decadent nobility of seventeenth century France, where duchesses shit in public, bodies go unwashed and teeth rot in pompadoured heads, we are treated to an unexpectedly tender love story.
When Louis-Henri, the Marquis de Montespan, first sets eyes on the beautiful, blonde, voluptuous Françoise he falls instantly in love. Brought together by their twin loss (her future husband and his brother have just been killed in a duel) and, as they obviously fancy the pants off each other, and rather than let her sumptuous wedding gown go to waste, they marry one week later.
It’s an inauspicious match and the young couple, totally besotted with each other, embark on a hedonistic lifestyle, gambling, partying and spending far beyond their means. But their unbridled pleasure-seeking means that debts soon mount up. A worried Louis-Henri borrows from his father and embarks on several disastrous money-making schemes. Meanwhile, the gorgeous Françoise, who has taken the name ‘Athénaïs’ “To bow to the fashion of Antiquity – all the rage at the moment”, is offered the chance to become lady-in-waiting to the Queen at the Palace of Versailles. This, the couple feel, should turn their fortunes around. But what they didn’t bargain for is the King Louis XIV’s penchant for voluptuous blondes and he takes Athénaïs as his (soon to become favourite) mistress. Montespan is devastated. Left with the couples’ two children he decides to challenge the monarch and win her back, an unusual and courageous step at a time when the status of cuckold to the King was considered an extremely lucrative honour.
I loved this brilliantly translated, bawdy, funny and, ultimately, extremely compassionate novel. Jean Teulé has taken a much-ridiculed character from French history and given him a beautifully tender voice. If your group is looking for a great story in translation then this absolutely must be your next read!
MONSIEUR MONTESPAN is published by Gallic