This is one heck of a book. The cast of characters list at the beginning is six pages long. The author’s note promises that “anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.” 749 pages.
These are the main tips I have for reading this book:
- Keep notes! You will be SO THANKFUL. If a character appears and you are not sure who they are, check the list at the beginning and write down the page number she/he appears on. Distinguishing characteristics are also helpful. This is by FAR one of the most helpful things you can do to help keep track of everybody–if it weren’t for the notes my sister had made, I don’t know what on earth I would have done. Here are some examples:
- Give in to the wikipedia temptation. At first I tried to avoid it because I didn’t want any “spoilers” (I know nothing of French history, had never heard of Danton or Camille Desmoulins and thus had no idea what was going to happen to them). But it’s inevitable. You’re going to need it, especially when you can’t remember what/who the Girondists are.
- Antoine Fouquier-Tinville and Antoine Saint-Just are both cousins of Camille, they’re both ominous jerks, and they are TWO DIFFERENT PEOPLE. I spent the entire book thinking they were one and the same until they finally confront each other, forty pages from the end. “WHAT?” I shrieked out loud, causing my sister’s cat to turn towards me in alarm. “They’re two different people??” Yes. Yes, they are. Do not make the same mistake. Refer to page 57 in particular if you need a reminder: Antoine Fouquier-Tinville is a lawyer rumored to have murdered his wife, Antoine Saint-Just is a failed poet. They are both extremely Bad News.
- René Hébert (described as “a theatre box office clerk”) will play a BIG role in Part Five so don’t forget about him–his newspaper in particular will cause a lot of trouble.
- Stanislas Fréron (the childhood friend called Rabbit) doesn’t play as big of a part in the book as you’d expect him to. He’s mostly just kind of… there. Lafayette (a war hero from the American Revolution) is similarly mentioned a lot early on and then just disappears (but no worries, there’s plenty of new characters to focus on!).
- Pay attention to the neighbors’ daughters. Especially little Louise in the case of Danton, and Babette in the case of Robespierre. This in particular is an excellent example of how Mantel uses fiction in a way that straightforward history cannot: by making something up that likely has little historical evidence (as far as I know), she nevertheless illuminates one of the book’s biggest themes, that of how the personal is the political.
- You better remember that Maitre Perrin is Camille’s former boss, as the sketchy rumors about their illicit relationship will play a big part throughout the book.
- Brissot is one of the few characters listed twice in the character list (Part Two and Part Five). Don’t let this confuse you!! They are indeed the same person. The most helpful note to put next to his name is “Danton’s political rival.”
- Cordeliers is the name of a neighborhood where Danton lives, and will later be the name of his political party.
In many ways reading this book was more way more difficult than reading A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the most comparable experience I can think of. In ASOIAF, characters are restricted to their point-of-view chapters (so you don’t ever have to worry about someone from Arya’s world popping up in Daenerys’, for example). In this book, however, characters can appear pretty much anywhere at anytime (which the exception of the Royal family, who rarely appear and are appropriately very much contained to their own little universe). So you better have a pen next to you when you’re reading this cuz there’s no time for fucking around.
All in all, despite the length and complexity I read this book FAST, binge-style. The first 200-300 pages describing the characters’ early lives (of which apparently very little is officially recorded in history) are particularly gripping, and as for the last 200, well forget about doing anything else with your time. Mantel does an excellent job of setting up tiny clues and little hints for big pay-offs, like when Danton befriends an actor who teaches him deep-breathing techniques for public speaking:
“You breath from here”–he stabbed at himself–“you can go on for hours.”
“I can’t think why I’d need to,” Danton said.” (31)
Or this exchange between Camille and Robespierre:
“What is the point of combating the tyrants of Europe if we behave like tyrants ourselves? What is the point of any of it?”
“Camille, this isn’t tyranny–these powers we are taking, we may never need to use them, or not for more than a few months. It’s for our self-preservation, our survival as a nation.” (589)
Oh, the delicious irony of these early foreshadowing scenes! Even knowing nothing about these characters’ lives (with the exception of Robespierre, thanks to 10th-grade World History class), I could tell that they were being set up for something big.
Unfortunately with a book this ambitious, some things ended up getting lost for me. Namely Camille’s relationship with his father–it’s made clear to us that Camille never gets his approval, is never good enough for him, etc. And yet with everything else happening in the novel this theme never felt as fully developed as it could have been. Instead it just felt like a convenient trope. But heck, who am I to complain? Mantel apparently started writing this book when she was TWENTY-TWO, and had to complete all the research before moving to Botswana with her husband (pre-Internet days, at that!). It was then promptly rejected by agents and publishers and didn’t end up getting published till twenty years later. An encouraging tale of perseverance and how to not judge your own self-worth based on the market, indeed.
So many things to praise about this book… The modern-sounding dialogue (the majority of the book by far is conversational exchanges, which plays a huge role in making it so gripping to read. No boring exposition here). The focus on women. The way that big events often happen “off-screen” (with the exception of a few big ‘uns, the focus is mainly on the events’ after-effects, when the characters are back in their living rooms with their families, shaky and panting). The pathos of the ending as it all comes crumbling down. The gleeful walk-on cameos by Marat and Buonaparte. It’s also gloriously fun to learn unexpected facts–for example, did you know that the author of Dangerous Liasons plays a teeny-tiny minor role in the Revolution?
There are so many characters in this book with artistic intentions: actors, poets, writers… Camille himself often anguishes over his failure to write (his stutter is also used to great metaphorical effect), and journalists and pamphleteers (especially in the second half of the book) wield an important power. Beware the written word, this book almost seems to be saying. It can do things. It can make things happen. It’s almost nostalgically uncynical, at least until everything starts to crumble. Despite its incredible sense of order, in a way this is a very punk-rock book. The three main characters propel through it with the energy and enthusiasms of teenagers (sex for Camille, money + goodies for Danton, and idealistic visions of a more just society for Robbespierre). You could totally write modern day fan fiction about these three being friends and causing a ruckus on an East Coast liberal arts campus, going to anti Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter protests. More than anything else, it’s the depiction of the friendship, relationships and interactions between these three central figures that make the book worth reading.
God, how fun it is to read a book this rich and absorbing, to completely disappear into a world you otherwise knew nothing about, to get lost in it! How glorious! The sheer amount of research and effort that went into this! How wonderful it is to use your brain when you read; to be forced to be attentive! How overwhelming; how marvelous! What an achievement, what a story, what a novel.