Author: Susanne Dunlap
Publication Date: 2/28/12
Blurb (GR): 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
The Académie reimagines a history where James Monroe’s daughter Eliza went to the same school at the same time as Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Caroline, and his stepdaughter (Josephine’s daughter) Hortense de Beauharnais. The school was run by Jeanne Louise Henriette Campan, who was mistress to the bedchamber of Marie Antoinette. In actuality, there wasn’t a time that all three girls were in attendance together so the author fabricated Eliza’s presence at the school in 1799 to create a plausible timeline and then ran with it. I read and enjoyed Dunlap’s recent work, In the Shadow of the Lamp, which told a tale of a young woman who joins Florence Nightingale’s nursing corps during the Crimean War, so I was excited to jump into another time period with her and fall into the story. Her writing is engaging and she created a scenario where I actually enjoyed multiple narrators. The book is told from the point of view of Eliza Monroe, Hortense, and a third young woman, Madeleine, who though she comes from a very different background and situation becomes entwined with the other two (and Caroline Bonaparte) later in the story.
Each character was unlikeable in her own way, yet the author made me look forward to hearing from them when it was their turn to narrate. I thought Eliza was naïve and a bit of a try-hard (“The new manner of government gives titles and positions to those who actually deserve them. It will be easy to stand out in that sort of crowd.”), Hortense was a pushover, and Caroline was a huge… well, I’m sure you can figure out what word I want to write here. Multiple narrators rarely work well for me but I quite enjoyed the catty conversations and subtle jabs between the young women, particularly when I knew I would get to hear from the other participants at some later point. Also, I think it is realistic that each girl thought she was the only one who truly had a grasp of what was going on in their social circles and constantly wondered what the others were thinking.
While I did enjoy the multiple main characters, I wish an entire book was concentrated on Madeleine’s character. She felt removed from the three girls at the boarding school yet I found her story to be the most compelling. A young girl, relegated to servitude by and for her mother and who lives her entire life in the theater. A girl whose mother finds her to be competition, on the stage and in matters of male company. I almost pictured Madeleine as a Sara Crewe-type character, making the best of a situation which she knew she could rise above. I will not give away the ending of her particular story but I found it to be such an awful end to the only primary character whose story was entirely fabricated. The author writes in an afterword about taking liberties with the time period and particular character’s traits. I mentioned in a discussion with another Goodreads reviewer (Michelle, who wrote a wonderful review here) that the fact that the author did this did not bother me until the last portion of the novel. History provides us with pinpoints for all the lives of these characters—Dunlap couldn’t (with any credibility) leave the characters in some obscure life paths that were completely untruthful. They each more or less end up where they actually did in history. So why make Eliza Monroe out to be some abolitionist when there is no historical record to back it up?
The plotline of the book has a lot to do with young romance, trying to find a partner of equal familial standing and wealth, and the general antics of high-school aged girls. For about the first half of the book, I wasn’t sure who was going to end up with whom in the story as feelings were flying all over the place. A piece of me wants to say that the romantic elements of the story were unrealistic but I know marriage was much more an issue of practicality during that time period. I suppose I just enjoy reading about relationships based on love rather than convenience and social standing. When I think about it overall, I am so happy I read this while I was in a good mood. Otherwise, it would’ve driven me up a wall that people were traveling so quickly by carriage and that everyone seemingly gets away with every hijink they get up to. How convenient!
We learn so much of our history in a vacuum. While I was reading The Académie , I kept wondering how many historical world events I could match up with the corresponding American president/s. I memorized the presidents in order from an Animaniacs song when I was a kid, but honestly I was surprised to learn that James Monroe’s daughter went to the same school as Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister and stepdaughter, even if they were a few years apart. I guess that’s one argument for reading historical fiction (and nonfiction even more so)—now I will never forget. Jeopardy, here I come!
Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for providing a review copy.