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When this book was introduced to me I thought it might be a lot like Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code series or like one that we read in Book Club titled Angelology. I was right. It's got the intrigue, the action, the mystery and the history - LOTS of French history! Probably too much history for the average reader. I had the feeling a lot of the references were lost on me. The author is good at writing in two time periods - like using "swoon" in one and "faint" in another. But towards the end of the book I began to wonder if she was getting paid by the word! There were just so many layers to this onion that I frankly got tired of the smell.
On a scale of 1 - 5:
Sex - there is some but the scenes are very few and far between. The first incidence is on page 193 and is more of a romantic, artsy description - nothing overly graphic just tons of passionate waxing and the unsettling combination of these two characters. The second love scene doesn't happen until p. 488. Just enough words so there is no doubt - but tasteful. It was not unexpected the chemistry had been building up for some tie, but the situation in which it occurred was so impractical. Call me unromantic but I just didn't buy it. The third love scene is soon after the second.
Religion - considering that the back story opens with nuns there is not as much religion as one might have expected although there is a downplayed storyline about a child being born a prophet
Gruesome - there are a couple of really gruesome parts but considering the length of the novel they don't take up much real estate. Mireille sees the driver's severed bloody head on a stake and there are a few references to guillotines.
Suspense - there are a few sub-plots that are suspenseful, especially when the story line is broken with a trip into another time period. It's not so much an edge-of-your-seat suspense as a sitcom-being-continued-next-week leaving you wondering what will happen.
Morality - people go to ridiculous lengths to keep their word so for that I rated the morality rather high.
A lot of characters are introduced in each era and with the gaps in between, by the last third of the book I found some were difficult to recall. But maybe I'm not the most focused reader - I didn't notice until page 296 that the section breaks are marked with a sideways figure 8, like the infinity mark!
Everyone in both eras is seeking a formula - but it's never clear of what the formula is. Whoever gets it will have great power - but is it an elixir, or a get rich quick scheme?
By the last quarter of the book I almost didn't care anymore. I didn't want to leave the story unfinished but if this were a movie I'd be checking my watch wondering how much longer it could possibly go on. I was finding it harder and harder to believe that Catherine Velis would jump through all these hoops, risk life and limb and more - all for some old artifacts involved in a game that she repeatedly said she didn't want to play.
In the beginning of the book some connections and relations between characters were revealed and I found them interesting. But by the last one-fifth of the book, when several other relations revealed in a bombarding sort of way, I felt like "so what". If it didn't speed the resolution then I didn't want to know. I began to feel like Lily when she said, "You mean we traveled thousands of miles and went through all these hassles just to find out the secret of this service is a pile of phony magic trumped up by a lot of primitive priests?" (p. 382)
On page 441 I finally got a decent understanding of what the "secret" was SPOILER ALERT "The aim of all alchemical experiments is to arrive at a solution that reduces to a cake of dry reddish powder..." "This cake is the stone. A piece of it combined with base metal turns it to gold. When dissolved and swallowed, it's supposed to heal all your ills. They call it the philosophers' stone..." (p. 442) That is not an uncommon theme in literature - seeking the fountain of youth.
The idea that people were chess pieces and moving each other around a board seems very far-fetched to me. I don't mind reading mystery books on occasion. A piece of my brain might try and figure out who dunnit. But usually I don't want to work that hard with leisurely reading. So grasping all the intricacies of this book was beyond my energy level. I might have rather read Chess for Dummies.
What does the title refer to? The eight collection points chosen by the abbess, the eight large oil companies, the eight on the palm of some hands, or something else?
Compare and contrast Mireille and Valentin with Mary and Martha.
"You trust a man you are able to bribe, but mistrust one whom you are not?" (p. 110) How is this a good strategy?
When Mireille asked the tribunal judge who he was he said, "the rage of the people" (p. 173) and then proclaimed destruction and vowed to own the Montglane Service. Who did you think he was?
The girls are initially frightened by Talleyrand and believe he is the person they were warned against, so why did Mireille trust him enough to show him the pieces? (p. 195)
Did you think Mireille was right to trust Maria Anna and her brother Napoleone after meeting them in the street?B
How did you feel about the inconsistencies before Catherine left New York?
Lily said she wouldn't see her again because she'd be busy prepping for the tournament with Mordecai
Mordecai sent Catherine a note saying he'd send Lily to accompany her
The maid said Lily and Mordecai were prepping
When did you first suspect that Mireille was pregnant?
What is the symbolism in Lily dragging her car and dog around the world while Mireille left her infant behind in a foreign land?
Did you believe that Valentine was dead?
Did you ever suspect that Charlotte Corday or Catherine Grand was someone else (not who they claimed to be)?
Do you think the abbess should have trusted Catherine the Great (czarina) more or less than she did?
Were you satisfied with who Catherine wound up with? If not - who did you expect or hope for it to be?
What family relationship most surprised you?
Have a chess board or set as the centerpiece.
If you are crafty, get some large, plastic chess pieces and glue some shiny bling on to them for decorations or guest gifts.
Serve Egg Nog like Harry got for Catherine on New Year's Eve. My favorite egg nog recipe is:
32 oz Egg Beaters, 32 oz Fat Free Half and Half, 1/2 a can of Fat Free Whip Cream, 1 large box Sugar Free Instant French Vanilla Pudding Mix, 2 oz Rum Extract, 1 tsp Nutmeg Blend Pudding and Egg Beaters with a whisk in large bowl, gently stir in half and half, extract and nutmeg. Fold in whip cream. Use a funnel and transfer to a washed out gallon milk jug for easy storage and serving.
Serve coffee with Tuaca like Nim served Catherine at his house.
Serve loaves of hard black bread and pitchers of ale like when Mireille met with Maria Anna and Napoleone.
Play Kabyle music.
Serve Swiss Chocolates like Kamel sent Therese, the switchboard operator.
Decorate with narcissus like Kamel got for Catherine on the way to see El-Marad.
I don't normally post full-on menus but this book had several full meal descriptions so maybe you're book club has a fancy dinner one night in honor of this book - here are some menu ideas:
When Mireille arrived at the Buonaparte home (p. 259)
Broccio (a goat cream cheese)
The first day Catherine met Kamel (p. 286 - 287)
serve in tiny glasses
pie with crispy crust dipped in cinnamon and sugar, stuffed with a delectable combination of ground pigeon meat, minced scrambled eggs, raisins, toasted almonds and exotic spices
Syrupy Black Coffee
for dessert, cut into squares
jelly like substance coated with powdered sugar and flavored with ambrosia, jasmine and almonds
(recipe may be included in a version of the cookbook that the author took inspiration from)
When Kamel and Catherine traveled to see El-Marad
Bitter Red Byrrh with lemon and crushed ice
Byrrh is A French bitter wine made from a blend red wine and quinine water and usually served as an aperitif.
Lily and Catherine on their way to the desert (p. 393)
Crudites (oily array)