ÉMILIE’S VOICE
Susanne Dunlap

 


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Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2005
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Seventeenth Century France

Fourteen-year-old Émilie Jolicoeur has the most beautiful voice in France. The daughter of a poor maker of musical instruments, she is naïve, uneducated, and untrained, until she is accidentally discovered by a talented musician.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier is the composer for the Duchesse de Guise. At first, Charpentier sees Émilie’s voice as his ticket to Versailles and the favor of King Louis. The King’s composer, Jean-Baptiste de Lully, fearful of rivalry, has decreed that Charpentier may not work for King Louis’ court. Charpentier, singing duets with Émilie in which their souls seem to blend, realizes that he cares even more for her than for her voice.

King Louis XIV lives exactly as he likes among every imaginable luxury, including the recognized right to sleep with any lady he pleases. Louis is especially attracted to women with musical talent.

Madame de Montespan is Louis’ current Official Mistress, an honor with more power than the queen. In spite of her celebrated charm, she is notorious for forcing rivals to leave court if they seem to endanger her position with the king.

Madame de Maintenon, the governess of Madame de Montespan’s illegitimate royal children, is distressed at the decadence of the king’s life. She will stop at nothing, even poison, to save the king’s soul for God – and to make herself his official mistress.

The Comte de St. Paul brings Émilie to Versailles before Charpentier believes she is ready. St. Paul plans for Émilie to save him from a life of penury.

Sophie, formerly desired by the king but now a Paris prostitute, is out for vengeance. Even the scheming Sophie knows that St. Paul is too treacherous to ally herself with him.

The nobility at the corrupt court of Louis XIV are incapable of finding anything as beautiful as Émilie’s voice without seeing in it a treasure to be grabbed or a tool to be exploited. Loyalties shift and plots interweave, while to everyone Émilie is a pawn to be used and discarded. It made me so sad to see Émilie at the mercy of all these predators that there were times when I couldn’t pick up the book and start reading again. I wept at the end, and yet I felt, in some sense, vengeance had been done.

Author Susanne Dunlap has researched extensively into how people lived at this time, whether in the golden luxury of the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King, or in base poverty. Usually she uses her knowledge to create highly colored settings. Only rarely will she lecture us on her findings. I had to laugh at the explanation of why seventeenth century physicians considered it dangerous to take baths; but I could have done without a description, almost a page long, of how St. Paul loads his pistol. Other readers might have reverse reactions. The overall effect is to leave the average reader feeling one has learned much.

If you are like me and love to read glorious music evoked in prose, ÉMILIE’S VOICE will move you. Susanne Dunlap knows music best, but she savors art in every form, and describes it so well we can see it. Holding a Ph.D. in music, she is Director of Development for Connecticut Opera. ÉMILIE’S VOICE is her debut novel.

Aug 2005 Review

 

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