By Penny A Parrish FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
When tourists visit Versailles, they tend to be impressed by the gold, the furnishings, the famous Hall of Mirrors and the gardens with their fountains and statues. But when it was actually a palace, there was a darker side to the opulence. Eva Stachniak’s “School of Mirrors” captures both sides.
In 1775, a beautiful young girl is visited by a mysterious man in the hovel where she and her family live. The girl’s father is dead and her mother is trying to keep food on the table by mending tattered dresses. This man, however, has a way to ease the financial burden on the family: the 13-year-old girl, Véronique, must be put into service and earn money, which will be sent home. She is not told where she is being sent, or to whom.
Véronique finds herself in Versailles, not at the castle, but in a place called Deer Park, where she is lodged with some other beautiful young girls. Its patron is believed to be a Polish count. Véronique learns to write, read, dance and other activities that will make her a lady.
Eventually, she is taken to the palace, where she meets a man she believes to be the Count. But it’s actually King Louis XV, who brings young women to his living room and bed to have fun. He is fed up with the ladies of his court and asks his lackey to look for innocent young people in Paris.
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Véronique ends up having a child and is sent away to have the baby, which is immediately taken away from her.
The second part of this book deals with Marie-Louise, the daughter she gives birth to, and her life circumstances. In the end, all the pieces come together.
The story continues at the time of the French Revolution. The writing is lively, lingering on specificities that bring the era to life.
Details of the smell of clothes, the lack of hygiene, the way the streets were filled with excrement and dirt – all of this made this book almost a verbal movie for me. I could see, and almost smell, and even taste the words Stachniak had put on paper.
The author also wrote “The Winter Palace” about Catherine the Great. She obviously does her research, but instead of a dry historical novel, she brings the characters to life with pain and loss, hope and laughter. You’ll care about them, and they’ll stay with you long after this book closes.
Penny A Parrish is a freelance writer in Stafford County.