cover image The Disenchantment

The Disenchantment

Celia Bell. Pantheon, $28 (368p) ISBN 978-0-593-31717-4

Bell’s inventive debut revisits an obscure incident in French history known as the Affair of the Poisons. In late 17th-century Paris, Marie Catherine la Jumelle is unhappily married to the older Baron de Cardonnoy and escapes her domestic drudgery by attending salons. At one, she meets the charismatic Victoire de Conti, who writes poetry and loves to scandalize her fellow salonnières by dressing in gentlemen’s clothes. Marie Catherine and Victoire go on to become discreet lovers, but after the baron discovers the affair (which he thinks is with a man) and confronts his wife about it, he is shot to death by a masked man. Javert-like Lt. Gen. of Police Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie immediately suspects Marie Catherine of the crime. De la Reynie is obsessed with eradicating the fortune-tellers, rogue priests and sorcerers who are supposedly dealing in corrupted sacraments, spells, and poisons, and it is among this lot that Marie Catherine tries to find someone to pin her husband’s murder on. The author excels at creating a hothouse atmosphere in which depravity, sensuality, and duplicity reside side by side, and Marie Catherine’s plight builds in suspense as the noose tightens around her, leading to an ending that turns the novel into a rousing feminist fable. It’s a bold and inspired mix of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Crucible. (May)