THE ORANGE TREES OF VERSAILLES
Annie Pietri, , trans. by Catherine Temerson. . Delacorte, $15.95 (137pp) ISBN 978-0-385-73103-4
A commoner with a knack for creating perfumes smells a rat and foils a royal murder plot in this curious slice of historical fiction, imported from France. Marion Dutilleul, the 13-year-old daughter of one of King Louis XIV's gardeners, is hired to serve the beautiful but evil Marquise de Montespan, known around the court as the king's favorite mistress (their ongoing affair is presented as standard operating procedure, leaving readers to puzzle out the implications). Not content to play second fiddle to the queen, the marquise orders Marion—who has a remarkable memory for scents—to concoct perfumes that will drive the Sun King wild while the mistress devises a plan to get rid of the queen permanently. The plot relies heavily on coincidence and runs to extremes. The marquise's bad habits include participation in "black masses," which inconvenience her: "I am sick of lying naked on a pallet while you consecrate the host with the blood of a newborn child!" she tells "her" witch in the stiff dialogue that characterizes this translation. The author does evoke in vivid detail the olfactory challenges—blood and chamber pots, mainly—of chateau life in the 1700s. An endnote on the historical functions of perfume and background on some famous "noses" adds intriguing information, but may not be enough to anchor this slim novel on this side of the Atlantic. Ages 9-12.
Reviewed on: 06/28/2004