Now, I’ll confess that, growing up, I was a huge “The Three Musketeers” fan. I loved the books and read them over and over, laughing out loud at the most amusing parts. Therefore, while I have many other favourite historical eras, there’s just something about the 17th century France and romantic swashbuckling adventures that intrigues me. If you know me at all, you’ll know I also admire women with weapons... so when I first heard about Kelly Gardiner’s “Goddess”, I knew I had to read it.
“Goddess” is a story of Julie d’Aubigny, aka La Maupin, a 17th century swordswoman and a famous opera singer. She received an upbringing of a page, had various lovers, caused numerous scandals, fought duels (she was once challenged by three noblemen – for kissing a lady in a ballroom – and she beat them all), entered a convent only to be with her beloved and to elope with her, a deed for which she was condemned to death by fire... I could go on, but you get the idea: there’s more than enough material for a novel there.
The novel starts with Julie d’Aubigny confessing her sins to a priest on her deathbed. I was somewhat disappointed by this narrative device – it’s not exactly new and it deprives the story of some suspense (obviously; we know how it’s going to end). However, it does give the narrative a certain feel of doom, of tragedy.
And I’d bet Gardiner did that on purpose. La Maupin is an opera star, a diva. She compares life to a performance, a show. And the reader never forgets that. Her voice is dramatic and theatrical; her story certainly doesn’t lack in striking, intriguing events – and, knowing the outcome, the reader can’t escape the feeling that she is watching a tragedy. In addition, the story has been divided into acts and scenes rather than traditional chapters. Every other scene (“Recitative”) was narrated by Julie in first person, while every other scene (titled “A duet”, “The Ballet”, “Ensemble” etc.) employed a third person narrator.
These are interesting choices from the author, but unfortunately they made me feel like I was an audience: I was watching a performance rather than truly suffering and exulting and despairing and falling in love with Julie. That’s a pity, for she has so much potential to be an unforgettable heroine. She is bold, she is brave, she is confident, she is passionate, she is formidable – and fragile. Her vulnerability, though there, didn’t come through very well; perhaps that was a part of her act (show must go on), but I can’t help feeling that she might have made a more likeable heroine, had we seen more of that side of her.
Gardiner has clearly done a tremendous amount of research, even tracking down La Maupin’s opera performances etc. However, the stage setting leaves something to hope for. A little more historical detail would have easily fixed that.
I particularly enjoyed the author’s notes – the records concerning Julie d’Aubigny’s life are many and varied, yet there is much we don’t know about her. That makes her even more intriguing.