Carole DeSanti, longtime editor of literary superstars like Dorothy Allison and Terry McMillan, has been leading a secret life. For the past ten years she's been crafting a novel of her own, and The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is as much a personal meditation on women's emotional and professional tradeoffs as it is a sweeping saga of the decadent Paris that spawned Madame Bovary.
Lured to the city by the empty promises of a ne'er-do-well nobleman, sixteen-year-old goose girl Eugénie Rigault finds herself abandoned, destitute, and, unsurprisingly, pregnant. Life with a bohemian painter brings her brief fame, but soon enough, Eugénie must choose between starvation or the illicit sorority of Les Deux Soeurs, one of Paris's notorious state-legislated tolerated houses. Over a decade marked by absinthe-soaked parties and the famine of the Franco-Prussian War, Eugénie struggles to reconcile the two parts of her divided self--"the one that observed the world but could not act; the other that moved heedlessly, lacking a sense of the world's consequence."
In DeSanti's deeply sensual novel, the foie gras melts on the tongue and the perfumes threaten, at times, to overwhelm. But her sharp eye for the hypocrisies of power dynamics elevates this novel far above the hothouse. In a meeting with the radical Communards, Eugénie finds an uneasy kinship. "To look into their eyes.... was to feel the creep of something familiar. Of deals made far above one's head, out of one's view; destiny on the chopping block." Like the painting that made her famous, Eugénie is the quintessential "Unknown Girl," at the mercy of social forces inexorable and incomprehensible, doing the best she can to get by.
While there's plenty of satisfying hetero- and homoerotic groping, don't read this fiercely intelligent novel if you simply want a good love story dressed up in period clothes. Read it for the complex sexual politics, lush language, and mirror onto our own excessive, heedless times.