In her debut novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., author Carole DeSanti has crafted an evocative story of a young woman’s courageous and reckless coming of age amid the rollicking mayhem of France during and after the Second Empire. While Eugenie’s escapades unfold in the tumultuous era between 1860-1871, her refusal to relinquish her passions and determination to survive are contemporary themes, as is the heroine’s struggle to define her roles as daughter, mother, lover and friend.

While the travails and tribulations afflicting young Eugenie and her compatriots might prove a bit daunting for some readers, DeSanti’s narrative is infused with poetry, lending an earthy realism to even the most complex scenarios.

“To wear mourning is not necessarily to mourn,” writes DeSanti. “To walk at the head of the procession, to bow one’s head over the grave is not necessarily to understand the weight and change of death. Silk or crepe, leather or kid gloves, paste or true jewels . . . a mix of gray and lavender in half a year, or scarlet in a week, whatever the latest fashion codes dictated—none of it is to mourn; for me, it was a reawakening.”

Indeed, DeSanti, the vice president at large at the Penguin Group, who is said to have been “clandestinely” writing this novel for more than a decade, has clearly done her homework. Prior to starting chapter one, readers will certainly want to pore over two special sections tucked at the back of the book: a historical timeline of France, circa 1848-1871, and a brief glossary of French terms. But one need not be a fervent Francophile to appreciate the injection of little known terms like ami-coeur, a term for partner in an intimate relationship.

The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R. is far from a sentimental homage to the lost France of the 19th century. DeSanti’s Paris is exhilarating and art-loving, albeit absinthe-drenched and riddled with venereal diseases and violence, while France’s foie gras country is a pastoral paradise that’s plagued by provincial mores and superstitions. 

Above all, readers will appreciate DeSanti’s aptitude for capturing the timeless themes of youthful insouciance, lost innocence and the ties that bind mothers and daughters, for better or for worse.

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