THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
New Novelist, Great Book
By Gina Barreca
Yes, I know you’re busy and that already have plenty of books to read, but—trust me on this one—you must get a copy of Carole DeSanti’s new novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. All right, so don’t trust me: trust Publishers Weekly, Valerie Martin, Deborah Harkness, Sarah Blake, Mireille Guiliano, and Fay Weldon, all of whom love the book.
Weldon says DeSanti has written ” a book to you make you think,” calling it “a magnificent novel in scope and achievement” where “death does its worst, passion wears itself out, civilization moves a notch forward, and with it, or because of it, female understanding of what it is to be a woman.”
Filled with the kind of historically and politically fascinating detail that made books like A.S. Byatt’s Possession a bestseller and a ripping good read, The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. is set in 19th-century Paris. You have that delicious sense that you’re right there and that you’ve met these characters before—but never really known them before encountering them in DeSanti’s pages.
In a way, DeSanti acknowledges as much when she talks about how she came to write the novel. After losing her “first real job” in publishing, “I had time on my hands, was reading for the GRE’s and I procured a battered old copy of Zola’s Nana. I devoured it in a night—but it also bothered me: Zola’s heroine had no soul, no interior life—and I ‘knew’ (wherever this knowledge came from) that something was wrong, here.” By creating the inner life and densely detailed world of Eugénie, she fills in the missing pieces; by offering a look inside the “courtesan culture” of brothel life (brothels were called “tolerances” because, while not strictly legal, they were indeed tolerated by the culture), she gives us a thoroughly mesmerizing view of the taboo and allows us to hear what for so long has remained in whispers.