The School of Mirrors
Eva Stachniak focuses on an intense era: France from 1755 to 1793. The School of Mirrors is a three-generation epic, divided into five parts. As the story opens, King Louis XV is a man who fancies beautiful girls of lower-class origins, to be trained in Versailles in obedience and the gracious arts. Véronique, the narrator of the early sections, becomes his favorite, believing her patron to be a Polish count related to the queen. Through her initially innocent eyes, we see Versailles and its occupants including, briefly, the queen and Madame de Pompadour. The rest of the book changes to third person, shifting to Marie-Louise, a young girl raised as a ward on the palace grounds who desperately wishes she knew her mother, but no one will tell her. She grows up harshly treated and poorly educated until removed to Paris by the king’s valet/business manager. Marie-Louise is a lively girl interested in science and a larger realm. Her midwifery training in Paris adds plot twists and intriguing female characters.
The School of Mirrors gives us inside views of royalty and the politics behind the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Elegant, somewhat decadent Versailles is contrasted with the poverty, ruthlessness, and revolutionary fervor of Paris. Marie-Louise continues to seek her mother there, but the skills she learns in her new adoptive home enable her to lead a purposeful life. She marries a lawyer who, as the revolution builds, becomes more and more committed to the cause.
Stachniak’s lively style and plot twists keep the story moving, and we care deeply about her characters and their fates. The novel is textured with details surprising even to those who know French history and have visited Versailles. This is a compelling novel and very highly recommended.