In this historical fiction novel, Anne Rice displays her literary prowess without any of the supernatural overtones usually found in her novels. While it is a melodrama, there is enough action to keep the plot moving without that dragging feeling books or movies sometimes get if a scene lasts too long.
The story is set in the 1840s and follows the lives of a handful of young gens de couleur libre, or “Free People of Color,” a type of in-between class formed of mixed race Creoles who peopled New Orleans and Louisiana. We get to see all of the characters from many different points of view throughout the story, so you really get a good sense of the world they lived in and the myriad of cultural nuances that explain who they are and why they behave as they do.
The main characters are Marcel St. Marie, the illegitimate son of Philippe Ferronaire, a rich white plantation owner who spends his time in the country with his white family and only visits the St. Maries in the city sporadically, and Cecile, Marcel’s mother, a Haitian refugee from the revolution. Philippe keeps the family very well taken care of via his lawyer who lives in the city. Marcel’s sister Marie St. Marie, his best friend Richard, and many more memorable personalities are met with throughout the novel.
One scene that stands out to me that doesn’t give away any of the plot is a scene involving Rudolphe Lermontant, the undertaker and father of Richard, and Christophe Mercier, the famous novelist-turned-school-teacher. Christophe had allowed Bubbles, a slave, to sit in the back of his classroom and learn with the children. As a result of this, many of the parents withdrew their children from his school. Christophe could not understand why they would object to this, since many of them were direct descendants of slaves and were subjected to many of the same discriminatory laws as other blacks. Rudolphe explains that while this is so, the gens de couleur must be careful not to lumped into the same class as the slaves. They had earned their freedom and had to demand to be treated as a separate social class that was almost equal to the whites. The Americans from other parts of the country did not see a difference between them; to them they were all just blacks. Rudolphe suggested that he educate Bubbles outside the classroom so that everyone would respect him for it, and as long as he kept him out of the classroom, the regular students would be allowed to return.
This highlights the very delicate balance that their whole society existed on. The gens were not fully accepted by the whites or the blacks. They were subjected to the same unfair laws and restrictions as the freed slaves and were looked at as bourgeoisie by the same black community. Many of the gens owned slaves themselves and as we find later in the novel, many of them were plantation owners.
Rice works in many historical lessons, especially regarding the Haitian Revolution, which was quite fascinating to learn about. The early Daguerreotype photography also features prominently through the story, as Marcel is very fascinated with the process and on occasion drags Richard to Picard’s photography studio to sit for portraits. Daguerreotype photography was one of the earliest types of photography developed by Louis Daguerre in Paris during the 1830s.
A Daguerreotype Camera
My only complaint about the novel is that some of the scenes are somewhat confusing. They jump back and forth between the past, present, and inner thoughts of the character a little too abruptly, in my opinion. The intention was to show the reader exactly what was going on in their heads, and after a second take always made sense. Aside from that, the novel flows very well and the characters are developed so fully that by the end I felt very entwined into their lives.
All of the characters are interesting, but Philippe is one of the more fascinating to follow. While he is initially rather unlikable, by the end I found him to be pitiful. He is wealthy and prestigious, but utterly miserable. His wife, Aglae, is extraordinarily cold and distant from him and he does not want to run a plantation or even live in the country. He only seems happy with Cecile in her cottage on Rue St. Anne. His life is essentially nothing but different obligations from which his only escape is Cecile and alcohol. Of course, Cecile, Marcel and Marie are kept secret from his white family and friends.
It is also very much a coming of age story. Young Marcel, Richard and Marie are all trying to find their way in life, and their trials are relatable to the present day, regardless of the differences between their world and ours.
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities and reading this atmospheric tale brought back many memories of strolling the French Quarter and the salty air blowing in off the Mississippi. Reading Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles back when I was a teenager inspired my romanticized view of the city and after finally visiting it, I was not disappointed. I am glad to have read this novel after having been there as that did add to the experience of reading the story. From that perspective, I am not sure if a reader who has never been there would react to the street names and descriptions as intensely, but I’m sure that it would give them a good taste of the Crescent City.