My friend Jemidar and I decided to read this book together because after finishing Hilary Mantel's wonderful A Place of Greater Safety, we missed its chief protagonists, that is, Camille Desmoulins, Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, and we wanted to further immerse ourselves in the events of the French Revolution. The novel tells the stories of Danton and Robespierre, along with those of three other players in the Revolution: actress Claire Lacombe and chocolate maker Pauline Léon (who between them founded and led the influential Society of Revolutionary Women), middle-class political activist Manon Roland and mathematician, philosopher and politician Nicolas Condorcet. Piercy explores events from 1789 to 1794 chapters which alternate the point of view of the six main characters.*
At first, reading the novel seemed like less than a good idea. Piercy's style is very different from that of Mantel. The narrative is much less dialogue driven than that of A Place of Greater Safety and much heavier on exposition. While a reader wanting to be told the facts may consider that an advantage, I missed the feeling that I was seeing events through the character's eyes and thinking their thoughts. Instead, I was often being told things by the author rather than shown things by the characters. However, as I continued to read, that aspect of the novel bothered me less and I was soon thoroughly engaged with the characters and the events through which they lived.
This was another fascinating excursion into the events of the French Revolution, something about which I previously had only the sketchiest of knowledge. Overall, I prefer A Place of Greater Safety, largely because I prefer Mantel's style, but also because I was disappointed that Piercy ended the novel with a speculative flight of fancy. But it's a close run thing. Piercy brings her characters to life and tells an interesting story in an engaging and accessible way. In addition, through the inclusion of Claire Lacombe and Pauline Léon as characters, Piercy provides a female and working class (sans culottes) perspective which is missing from A Place of Greater Safety. As far as ratings go, it's hovering at around the 4-1/2 star mark.
* Camille Demoulins, who is such a strong presence in Mantel's novel, is a more minor character in this one.