The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is the debut novel from Carole DeSanti, an editor with Penguin Group. It follows the story of Eugénie Rigault, a young goose girl from a province outside of Paris, and her coming of age during the rise and fall of France’s second empire. Eugénie is a naive young girl when she runs away to Paris ahead of her lover Stephan, checking in to a hotel with his letter testifying to her good morals to await his arrival. But as the days pass and Stephan fails to arrive, Eugénie is eventually forced out of the hotel, meeting the tortured and starving painter Pierre Chasseloup in a bar, and in an absinthe-soaked haze agrees to become his muse. But before long, the call of his art is too strong for Pierre to resist, and Eugénie finds herself again out on the streets, this time rescued by Françoise, a submistress for one of Paris’ most elite brothels.
From there, Eugénie discovers she’s pregnant, gives birth to a baby girl whom she eventually is forced to abandon to the nuns at the orphanage, falls in love – this time with the mysterious Jolie, who reminded me a little bit of what I imagine Marlena Deitrech to have been – and tries for years to remove herself from the Paris rolls of the inscrit, the registered prostitutes. In between, she leaves the brothel, finds protection under various Parisians and American ex-pats – mainly Confederates spending the American Civil War in France – and falls in with a community of other cocettes (courtesans).
And then, as the Empire is falling, she comes face to face with Stephan at a party, and Pierre is back, regretful and apologetic, and Jolie’s brother Henri, the roguish soldier, informs her roughly that monsieur le comte certainly can’t kiss her the way he does. But Eugénie doesn’t have time for the ghosts of the past and the irritants of the present. The gates of Paris are closing, the shelling is inching closer, food is dwindling, her protectors are defecting – to London, to Versailles, to America – and she is determined to get her daughter back.
The bones of a good story are here. It’s war-torn Paris, courtesans and painters, absinthe and orphans, a mother’s quest for her daughter, a woman’s quest for equality, sex and love and money and intrigue. I especially admired the way the courtesans were portrayed – strong women who fought as hard as they could for equality, and certainly didn’t take their status as second class citizens lying down. But I wasn’t in love with DeSanti’s style, and that’s where she loses a star from me. Too much… I don’t know. Just too much. Too flowery? Too wordy? Too many sentence fragments? Definitely too many semi-colons, and this is coming from a girl who loves a good semi-colon. But you have to be judicious with them. One shouldn’t use them more than once or twice a page, let alone three or four times in one sentence. And Eugénie is an unreliable narrator; at times she even tells the reader that she wishes that’s how it had happened, but it wasn’t, but yet she never corrects herself, so that left me wondering how much of the story was accurate. When that’s coupled with the overall sense that Eugénie didn’t particularly learn anything from her experiences, and at the end appears destined to make an even bigger mistake, I had a hard time liking her.
Eugénie’s story has potential, but I expected a little more unruliness and a lot more passion. And way less semi-colons.