This is an ambitious start to a trilogy set in 19th Century France – Barry writes with precision and enormous detail, enabling his reader to see his characters so clearly. From the outset, we are left in no doubt that this will be a tale of intrigue and scandal:
‘Just as a pretty parlour maid may be considered a perquisite by the master of the house, so some of our ladies are not immune to the charms of a handsome footman.’
One thing is made very clear – those who serve the aristocracy have very little in the way of personal freedom, and a sense of ownership makes many of the relationships in this novel fascinating to follow.
The second footman of the title, Max Fabien, is good looking enough to draw the eye of the Duchesse de Claireville, but Max is not going to be satisfied with the fleeting favours that come with attendance in his mistress’ bed. Keenly aware of the social restrictions of Belle Epoch France, he is looking for a patron to help him achieve a deception which will grant him a place in society. Max has a back story, one which is being slowly revealed in fragmented pieces, and I hope we get to understand more about his former experiences in the second book.
I really enjoyed this novel – the pace befits that of the first novel in a trilogy and this planned structure has allowed Barry the pace to develop his characters fully. Max, and his older aristocratic lover, Miremont, are complex, not least because their relationship leaves them open to public censure. At this stage, it’s hard to determine Max’s true feelings – early on, he decides ‘It also paid you to watch your tone with the old boy. He seemed less fond of the truth when it came unvarnished’ and I was fascinated by the power tussles between the two. There is little doubt, early on at least, that Max sees Mirmont as a means to an end. Whether that continues to be the case remains to be seen. There are many memorable characters in this novel – the catty but loyal Fabrice is a favourite of mine – and the detailed descriptions are also applied to the lavish homes of France’s Nineteenth Century aristocracy, making this a fascinating historical novel. More please!
Blurb: Nineteen year-old Max is the duchesse de Claireville’s second footman, but he does not intend to endure the indignities of service for long. He has a plan-to find an aristocratic patron who will become his unwitting accomplice in an audacious fraud. It is true that in 1880s’ France, despite nearly a century of revolution and social turmoil, the aristocracy is still firmly entrenched in privilege, and the gulf between the salon and the servants’ hall is as wide as ever. But Max is handsome, quick to learn and confident of his abilities as a seducer of both men and women. Whether ladling soup into noble plates beneath crystal chandeliers, or reading biographies of the great generals in his squalid footman’s dormitory, he is planning his strategy. He, Max, is the man of the future – ruthless, above morality and sentimental attachments. Yet, when, after a couple of false starts, he at last acquires his patron, he finds himself ambushed by instinctive longings-for friendship, for affection-that threaten his grand plan. ‘Be true to yourself…’ the saying goes. But to which self? And what is ‘truth’?
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Jasper Barry graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English and has worked in advertising, then in journalism. Jasper lives in London with too many books and three obstreperous cats.
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