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23 June 2005

Émilie's Voice

By Susanne Dunlap

From the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County catalog: "Émilie Jolicoeur, a young girl with an extraordinary voice, has no idea that when she is lifted out of her humble life...she will be thrown into a dangerous web of deception at the court of Louis XIV at Versailles. Her voice and her innocence are exploited by two powerful women vying for the attention of the king."

I got to page 97 and considered the time I gave this piece of schlock to be generous. While my best friend Karen has left only a scant few books unread, I jettison works after around 100 pages if I feel dragged under by their worthlessness. This was one such novel. Having read too many books by modern masters such as Helen Dunmore or Ian McEwan, where each sentence borders on the truly poetic and evokes so much emotion and vivid imagery, I needed this wake-up call to remind me that there can be vast differences between a talented writer and a published author.

The heroine was a simpering plaything, unable to do or say anything to her own defense. The writing was so bad, so trite and juvenile, that it made me wince and wonder in panic if my own attempts at fiction are this mundane and thoughtless. Lines like these, with over-used imagery and little finesse, made the process of reading a chore: "No more the pert, saucy lady's maid, Sophie was now quite obviously a denizen of the night, wearing clothing and face painting that announced her trade all too clearly to anyone who passed" (84) or "'As divinely appointed sovereign, surely I was given these appetites to exercise them!' [King] Louis said" (91). Ick!

And more disheartening still is the fact that it has received seven 4-star or better reviews on Amazon. Even the Library Journal, which reviews books for libraries to consider for purchase, said of it: "Dunlap's debut novel is a pleasure to read.... The plot is exciting and the characters wicked in their deviousness. Highly recommended for public libraries with historical fiction collections."

All of this makes me think that too many people have judged this book by its romantic cover, which is (frankly) why I first picked up the thing. To my credit, I had just heard a lecture on the French composer Jean-Baptiste de Lully and also thought it would be a nice tie-in. No such luck. But I should have known better; there is a "Reading Group Guide" with probing inquiries like: "Imagine yourself living a court in Versailles, where 'invisibility was worse than death.' Do you think you would enjoy it?" I answered more intricate questions than that in 7th grade, which would be a more appropriate reading age for this book.

Worse yet, it had no fun, no sizzle - just half-hearted attempts at portraying courtly love and the implication of naughty encounters. If I want trite historical fiction, I'll pick up a bodice ripper and at least enjoy it for the well-crafted, erotic fluff it is. If I want something more substantial, I'll have to choose another book from my reading list and try again.

(And here I thought my first negative review would be short. Apparently it takes nearly as many words to explain why something is worthless as it does to give deserving praise.)

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