Monday, April 14, 2014

L is for L'Amour: In Praise of French Romance Novels

Today's letter in the A-Z Challenge is "L". Our guest today is Libby McCord, discussing her passion for French-set historical romances. Ooo, la la, l'amour!

I cut my romance reading teeth on a series you may never have heard of:  the Angélique stories by husband and wife writing team Sergeanne Golon, set mostly in France during the mid-17th century. The first, Angélique, the Marquise of the Angels, published in 1956, introduced a beautiful young girl who, over the course of 13 volumes (10 translated into English), experiences more passion and adventures than any other romance heroine I can think of. So I chose “L” to stand for l’amour, the French word for love, and to encourage you to seek out historical love stories set in France. “France?” you say. “No one wants to read historical romance set in France.”

To which I say au contraire my friend. France provides the quintessential setting for stirring passion and intrigue, even if your historical understanding doesn’t go much beyond vague ideas of Versailles and the guillotine. Diana Gabaldon understood this draw—in Dragonfly in Amber, Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser end up at Versailles mid-18th century, and no one quarrels with that setting or its reliance on challenging political history.

Given Gabaldon’s success, why aren’t the Angélique novels better known today?  Well, even though Anne Golon (now a widow) continues to write without husband Serge, many readers simply don’t know about the books. The English translations are out of print, and the stories can be rambling affairs, at times, overwritten by today’s conventions.

So where does one turn?  Fortunately, we have a bestselling romance author who loves complicated historical France and believes it an ideal setting for love stories that transcend impossible odds:  Joanna Bourne. In her Spymaster series, three of the four books are set partly in France (The Spymaster’s Lady, The Forbidden Rose, and The Black Hawk). Reading them, you are plucked from your safe, comfortable couch or coffee shop and dropped squarely into a volatile France where politically star-crossed lovers spy in the shadows as the old societies crumble around them.

When I first discovered Bourne’s books, I devoured each one, just as I had the old Angélique novels. Her first heroine’s name is Annique. I wondered, had Jo Bourne loved those stories, too?  So I asked her.

I loved Angélique,” she told me. “Back in the day, I read them all. A couple are still on my (very small) keeper shelf. I admired the 'historical heft' to these books. The Angélique world is constructed of fierce authenticity—large realities like the intrigues at the palace of Versailles and the wars wrangling across the French countryside. Small realities like the act of lifting a kettle of hot water from the hook over the hearth to set it on the floor with a single, practiced twist of the hand. The solidity is crafted in the detail. It's as if the reader could reach into the book and lay hold of a wine bottle or an apple.”

Constructed of fierce authenticity. Historical heft. I love that. What about you?

By the way, Bourne will have a new book out in November, Rogue Spy. It’s set in London, like her second My Lord and Spymaster, but with plenty of French connections, and, I’m sure, the requisite stirring passion and historical heft.

Let's chat: Do you need more than a soupçon of setting or modicum of manners for your love stories? Do you appreciate a heroine and hero who must navigate perilous political waters where failure means certain death? Do you relish a romance with historical heft?

Libby McCord lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and has had a long-standing love affair with all things French, barbershop singing, and Labradors Retrievers. Her story The Spy on the Orléans Road (in progress), pits a Huguenot heroine against the King’s spy in mid-17th century France. Whenever she's not writing or singing, Libby practices law.

The "L" book list: 

Aimee Leduc: quirky, intense private investigator featured in a crime series set in Paris, by author Cara Black. So descriptive, you can almost smell the baguettes and taste the vin rouge.

Elizabeth Loupas: historical fiction. She weaves fictional characters so skillfully with real people, it's hard to tell which is which. From Mary, Queen of Scots to the Medicis, I love her prose.

Paul Levine: His character of lawyer Jake Lassiter is a worthy successor to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, but a whole lot funnier.

Versaille Image courtesy of Vichaya Kiatying-Angsulee /