The Académie by Susanne Dunlap
Eliza Monroe – daughter of the future president of the United States – is devastated when her mother decides to send her to boarding school outside of Paris. But the young American teen is quickly reconciled to the idea when – ooh, la-la! – she discovers who her fellow pupils will be: Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter of Josephine Bonaparte; and Caroline Bonaparte, youngest sister of the famous French general. It doesn’t take long for Eliza to figure out that the two French girls are mortal enemies – and that she’s about to get caught in the middle of their schemes.
Loosely drawn from history, Eliza Monroe’s imagined coming of age provides a scintillating glimpse into the lives, loves, and hopes of three young women during one of the most volatile periods in French history.
I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, which I find kind of interesting, because I LOVE historical romance novels. But the premise for this one sounded interesting, which is why I requested it. And the book had its moments where I was completely engrossed and utterly loving everything I was reading. And then there were moments where I was just … not. Nonetheless, it was an okay book overall, but not one that I could say I really REALLY liked.
It’s hard to really describe what this book is about, but here goes an attempt: The story takes place in France in the Fall of 1799, right before Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the French Directory, who was ruling France after the French Revolution. The author uses the setting of an all girls school in Saint-Germain called The Académie to tell what was happening in France during this time period through the eyes of three teenage girls. The story is told via these three viewpoints: Eliza Monroe, daughter of the future President of the United States, Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Madeleine de Pourat, a fictitious daughter of a fictitious Creole actress at the Comédie Française. Eliza, Hortense, and Caroline Bonaparte (Napoleon’s sister) all attend the school together, and set out on many adventures, several of which don’t achieve the hoped-for outcome. Madeleine is involved simply because she is in love with Hortense’s brother, but she doesn’t meet either Eliza or Hortense until almost 70% through the book.
I am sort of mixed in my opinion of this book. I felt like the first half was really slow-moving, as the author tried to introduce the characters and let the reader know how they were all connected. I felt sorry for Hortense from the first; Caroline is openly vindictive and treats her terribly, simply because she doesn’t like Hortense’s mother. Eliza’s narration is suitably young – she is only 14 – but I found her incredibly grating. She’s selfish, arrogant and easily manipulated by Caroline, and I found her constant cataloging of what was happening as being good fodder for letters to her mother quite annoying. I felt horribly sad for Madeleine, who has the worst time of it by far than any of the other characters, and enjoyed reading her chapters the most.
And then, the second half of the book happens. It definitely picked up, and you could see the plot lines coming to a head. At times I was almost breathless with what was going on. But the feeling the book left me with was sort of one of disappointment. It wasn’t that I thought that these couples (aside from Caroline) were going to be able to stay together or whatever – I know my history, thanks to Wikipedia (LOL) – but I wasn’t expecting everything to end in the manner it did. I was quite shocked with the climax.
And while we’re talking about couples, let me just say that all of this “love at first sight” stuff that was going on was a little ridiculous. [SPOILER] Hortense falls in love with the music teacher’s son, because, what, he plays music? And Eliza’s in love with Eugene because he’s handsome? And then they do really stupid things because of said love? It just got really stupid and was a bit overdone, in my opinion.[/SPOILER] Also, I was really unhappy with Hortense at the end; I mentioned that I felt bad for her above, but by the end of the book found her to be just as selfish in her own way as all the others. Her actions left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I also HATED that Caroline of all the characters got exactly what she wanted, when she was the least deserving.
Also, there was a brief mention via Eliza’s pov wherein she says something like, “Maybe I can convince my father to free our slaves, and give them wages, etc.” after meeting Madeleine, who is of mixed backgrounds (Creole mother, French father). I just felt this to be completely and utterly against what this girl would think that it jarred me right out of the story. Eliza is from 1799 Virginia, and her family has slaves. Now, I understand that in France at this time slavery was not allowed, and the French really frowned upon it, but I cannot imagine Eliza tossing away the beliefs she was raised with after only a few months in the country. Not when the behaviors were so ingrained. Sorry, but it wasn’t believable. Speaking of unbelievable, there were a few things that these girls got up to that made me go O_o as well, because I cannot think it would be even remotely appropriate for girls of wealthy families (especially Hortense and Caroline) to be going out on their own the way they did. Or am I mistaken? I know it definitely wasn’t allowed in England at the time, but perhaps Paris was different.
Anyway, to sum up my thoughts, this book provided an interesting snapshot of France in 1799. There were some amusing moments, many heart-wrenching ones (courtesy of Madeleine), and some that were downright shocking. But my quibbles really detracted from my overall enjoyment, making this – in my opinion – just an okay read overall.
An e-galley was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.