Eliza Monroe, daughter of the future president of the United States, arrives at a French boarding school in 1799 ostensibly to learn conversation skills, deportment, and refinement. The education she ultimately receives is infinitely more challenging, and more valuable. At the school, she meets two young girls into whose lives she will be irrevocably drawn: Hortense, the daughter of Josephine and stepdaughter of Napoleon, and Caroline, Napoleon’s sister. The two girls, as Eliza soon discovers, despise one another and will stop at nothing to get back at one another, drawing Eliza into their web.
This brilliant novel is told entirely in the first person, from the perspective of four young girls: Eliza, who dominates the text; Hortense; Caroline; and Madeline, the mulatto daughter of a former slave turned stage actress who suffers unspeakable horrors at the hands of her mother. Each character’s voice is heard clearly and distinctly, seamlessly threading a compelling and incredibly engaging narrative. The characters are multidimensional; each person in the story is shown with strengths and weaknesses.
History grounds the novel, with consistent references to the French Revolution, American influences, and the rise of the new French government. The question of slavery, by this point outlawed in France but still actively practiced in America, is addressed in no uncertain terms in this novel, with Eliza coming to an epiphany on the subject.
One is hard-pressed to find something to criticize in this exceptional novel. A minor flaw is a noticeable lack of substantial male characters in this tale, although Eugene, Hortense’s brother, does have his moments. Dunlap’s YA male readers may feel disenfranchised from the text; but then, no book is perfect. In The Académie, Susanne Dunlap has done her best work yet!