The Only Son

Written by Stéphane Audeguy (trans. John Cullen)
Review by Laurel Corona

The passing mention of an older brother in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions sent author Stéphane Audeguy in search of the rest of François Rousseau’s story. What emerges in The Only Son is an engaging portrait of a man of little means and much insight finding his way through the seamy and often chilling social and political reality of Paris and Geneva (both Rousseaus’ birthplace) in the years leading up to and immediately after the French Revolution.

Raised as a foppish and prematurely sexualized mama’s boy, François Rousseau is cast off by his indifferent and absentee father after the mother’s early death. François finds his way largely through his sexual encounters with both men and women who mentor, shelter, and teach him about survival in a chaotic and corrupt world. The book is at its best in the chapters that frame it. It opens with François watching, with ambivalence and some jealousy, as his famed brother’s remains are reinterred in the Pantheon after the Revolution. It closes with a fascinating and vivid account of François’s release from prison during the storming of the Bastille, and his later involvement in secretive meetings of revolutionaries during the Reign of Terror. With François as their eyewitness, readers are privy to the hidden agendas, especially the misogyny, that left so many—including Sophie, his greatest love—dead in the violence that gripped Paris.

This book is not for the sexually squeamish. Although scenes of pederasty and a variety of other hetero- and homosexual encounters are brief, they include some graphic language and details. Readers interested in the backdrop of the French Revolution and its aftermath, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his times, and narrators with deeply conflicted psyches will find this book a worthwhile read.