Daphne du Maurier ventured into family history with [b:Mary Anne|149712|Mary Anne|Daphne du Maurier|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1333331487s/149712.jpg|2186383] and she did it again in this work. Whereas Mary Anne is a fictionalised account of the life of her English great-great-grandmother Mary Anne Clarke, the mistress of the Duke of York, this novel touches on the story of du Maurier's French ancestor Robert Busson, a master glass maker who emigrated to England around the time of the French Revolution in order to avoid imprisonment for debt. In England he styled himself "du Maurier" (after his birthplace) to foster his social pretensions within the émigré community.
The narrative is in the style of a memoir, written by Robert's sister Sophie Duval for the benefit of her long-lost nephew - Robert's son - in order for him to understand the true story of his father's family. It focuses in particular on the family's experiences during the French Revolution.
I may well have enjoyed reading this novel much more if I had not so recently read Hilary Mantel's [b:A Place of Greater Safety|101921|A Place of Greater Safety|Hilary Mantel|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1344312998s/101921.jpg|1168385] and Marge Piercy's [b:City of Darkness, City of Light|862108|City of Darkness, City of Light|Marge Piercy|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320479678s/862108.jpg|1230592], two outstanding novels dealing with the French Revolution. Du Maurier's novel suffers when compared to these works. Part of this is due to the form of the narrative. Sophie Duval recounts the family's involvement with the Revolution as something which occurred many years previously. Her account is therefore a distant memory, rather than a currently lived experience, as is the case for Mantel's and Piercy's characters. This has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters and the events they experience.
Another problem is that the characters are flat and it was hard for me to feel much interest in or concern for their fate. In addition, the narrative lacks the wonderfully descriptive language found in novels such as [b:Rebecca|12873|Rebecca|Daphne du Maurier|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1327871977s/12873.jpg|46663] and [b:My Cousin Rachel|50239|My Cousin Rachel|Daphne du Maurier|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1170367871s/50239.jpg|623258], which du Maurier uses to such great effect to evoke a sense of place. I read about the places the characters lived in and visited without ever feeling like I was right there with them. An exception to this is du Maurier's description of the Vendée uprising in 1793, the horror of which is vividly evoked.
It's not as if there is nothing to admire in the novel. It's interesting to see the French Revolution from the perspective of people living outside Paris, whose involvement in events is somewhat more marginal than that of the characters dealt with in Mantel's and Piercy's novels. And Mantel's prose - even without descriptive language - is elegant and clear. I don't regret reading the novel, but if anyone else had written it, it probably would have been down in 2 star territory.
As always, the reading experience was enhanced by sharing it with my friend Jemidar.