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Review: The School of Mirrors, by Eva Stachniak
Morrow, 2022. 399 pp. $17

The year, 1755. Thirteen-year-old Véronique Roux lives in a squalid Paris apartment with her mother, who scratches out a living mending old clothes, and three younger brothers. One day, Maman tells Véronique she’s to go into service for a wealthy nobleman, and just like that, the girl’s shipped off to a splendid home a brief carriage ride from Versailles, where Louis XV holds court. Naturally, her mother receives certain financial considerations.

Told that her patron is a Polish nobleman attached to the court, Véronique is groomed for her upcoming service to him. She’s given plenty to eat; her skin and hair cleansed of lice and treated for various ailments common to poor children; she’s taught penmanship, posture, and comportment; to improve her singing and recitation; and, most important, instruction, religious and secular, stressing modesty, restraint, and obedience. In other words, qualities foreign to the French monarchy.

The emotions had to be controlled at all times. Anything vulgar had to be strictly avoided. Eating fast and too much, running, jumping, stomping our feet, shouting, cursing, showing either sadness or joy. ‘News of a death or a proposal of marriage… must be met with equal composure. Always smile, whether you are happy or not. Make your eyes sparkle, no matter what you are thinking of.’

Meanwhile, the narrative also recounts life within the palace at Versailles. In particular, we learn how the king, jaded and bored with his caged existence, longs for pleasures to lift his heart (and another part of his anatomy, which seems to rule his moods). He can’t stand dealing with matters of state, which include a war that’s going badly, so he spends as little time on these as possible. How droll.

Rather, everyone close to him, most especially his former mistress and closest advisor, Madame de Pompadour, do their best to divert him with gossip, prop up his flagging ego, and provide tender flesh to interest that other, significant part of him. Practically from the get-go, the reader understands what Véronique doesn’t: what her “service” will entail, and who her patron really is. She’s a bit dense for a Parisian girl, especially a beauty who’s endured advances from strange men and whose mother has all the tenderness of a brick, therefore the embodiment of hard lessons.

Charles André Van Loo’s portrait of Mme de Pompadour, née Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, ca. 1755 (courtesy Petit Trianon, Palace of Versailles, via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

Suffice to say that the “Polish nobleman” takes a shine to Véronique, and her subsequent pregnancy gets her expelled from paradise. Her child, Marie-Louise, is taken from her, while Véronique’s packed off to marry some grain merchant.

That I haven’t yet recounted the main premise of the novel tells you the major weakness of The School of Mirrors: The story really picks up steam seventeen years and 175 pages after it begins. Marie-Louise’s life in Paris, apprenticeship to a midwife, and ringside seat at the revolution and its excesses form the core of the book, and I like this part. So do we really need to know, in meticulous detail, how despicable the Bourbon monarchy was under the previous, fifteenth Louis?

Stachniak seems to want to reveal the precise depth of sexual abuse, misogyny, and moral corruption, and what a gruesome, ugly tale it is. I don’t think that justifies its presence, and I suspect that if you began reading at page 175, you’d understand almost everything you need to know to appreciate the novel. Well-chosen back story could have filled in the rest.

The first half of the book does offer a few noteworthy characters. I like the portrayals of the king, his chief procurer, and Madame de Pompadour. The descriptions give a vivid picture of court life — the author knows her ground — though I’d have liked them better had they struck an emotional chord. Some feel merely decorative, static.

But there’s no comparing with the second half of the book, where conflict spins more rapidly, and the revolutionaries turn out to be just as corrupt as the monarchy they toppled, if in their own way. Marie-Louise has more to her than her mother, and the narrative feels more intimate, therefore more compelling.

I wonder whether Stachniak has two novels here; she’s got two stories, certainly. Her desire to connect the two and derive surprise lacks the impact she may have hoped for, but that strategy’s apparently a trend, these days: try to shock the reader, at any cost to narrative flow or plausibility. At least the author doesn’t withhold information the way some do — she’s too generous for that — but I’ve never understood the fascination with connecting multiple disparate narratives. Seldom does it work out as intended in artistic terms, so it must sell books.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.