Tuesday, 22 April 2014
Review: Season of Light by Katharine McMahon
Asa Ardleigh is in Paris accompanying her sister Philippa on her honeymoon. What she discovers there is a city full of ideas, and as tensions increase between rich and poor there is an ominous sense that something is about to change. Enter the young activist Didier Paulin. Dashing, impassioned and full of revolutionary ideals he bears more than a passing resemblance to Enjolras from Les Miserables (the film version at least), and Asa falls instantly in love. After a brief affair Asa must return to England, but she refuses to give up on her dream of a life with one of France's most prolific revolutionaries.
Then revolution breaks out.
Back home Asa becomes restless, even more so when her family encourage her to marry distant cousin and heir to the Ardleigh estate Harry Shackleford. Initially introduced in Paris, Asa despises everything Shackleford represents; his excessive wealth and family connections to the slave trade contrast entirely with her abolitionist ideals. In order to try and tame Asa towards the prospect of marriage to Shackleford, her sisters employ a French companion for her. Madame de Rusigneux is a French aristocrat who has fled her country. She is tormented by her past, and full of secrets and wisdom that make her seem older than her years. In Madame Asa sees more than just a confidante, she sees a way back to Didier, and as revolution rages on she becomes increasingly determined regardless of the consequences...
The moment I discovered that this book was primarily set in Paris I was sold. Be it revolutionary Paris or the opulence and excess of Jazz Age Paris, the city holds some kind of mystical romantic appeal for me that I just can't resist. Katharine states in her author's notes that it was her intention to create an Austen-esque heroine and place her in the context of the French Revolution. On reflection, there are indeed elements of some of Austen's heroines; Asa is not unlike Fanny Price in her steadfast devotion to Didier, whilst her longing for adventure is reminiscent of Catherine Morland. She is blinded by her ideals, and it is this that leads to her downfall.
The thing that I liked most about this novel was how it championed the underdog; despite being introduced as a clingy lovesick Mr Collins type figure - a demeanour that doesn't really change - we actually come to like Harry Shackleford. He is devoted in his love for Asa and would do anything for her. He represents all of the downtrodden male figures in literature who are passed over in favour of some romantic ideal (which, as Asa discovers with Didier, isn't always all it's cracked up to be).
Full of twists and turns that I didn't see coming, Season of Light is so much more than a historical romance - it is more a historical novel with a hint of romance thrown in. The story is so compelling that I read it in a day and had what can only be described as a 'book hangover' when I had finished.
5/5 stars: In the words of a review by The Guardian Season of Light is "one of those books so intensely alive in the past that it makes the world you actually live in feel flimsy and thin." Safe to say that I will definitely be reading more of McMahon's work!