Goddess by Kelly GardinerGoddess by Kelly Gardiner is a fictionalized biography of Julie d’Aubigny, known as Mademoiselle de Maupin. This bisexual 17th century French swordswoman, opera singer, and daring adventurer would be impossibly implausible as an entirely fictional character and it’s a crime that we don’t have an entire industry of novels, movies, mini-series, and the like dedicated to telling her story from all angles.

Gardiner’s endeavor in this direction is an experimental and challenging read. Like any biography that covers the entire scope of the subject’s life, it can feel tragic as a whole, even when embracing moments of triumph and joy. This definitely falls in the category of literary fiction rather than romance or historical adventure.

The Characters

Julie d’Aubigny was larger than life and this comes through in gritty and suspenseful detail. At first I was in suspense about how the story would handle her sexuality, especially given the somewhat slow dawning of her self-realization, but Gardiner’s version presents her unambiguously in all her facets, covering her romantic and sexual relationships with both women and men, and interpreting certain details of her known history to create a same-sex romantic core that I think will satisfy lesfic readers.

The Writing Style

The central voice in the narrative is Julie’s but the chapters alternate between her monologue to the priest who has been sent to hear her deathbed confession (thus eliminating a certain amount of suspense for those not already familiar with her early death) and passages in a third person present tense that fill in the details of her life. Those used to a more straightforward narrative may need to work harder than usual to follow the threads.

The Pros

Once I got used to the writing style, I really like the way it played with different modes and voices. The structure is unusual but helped to create a unified narrative, which can be tricky when dealing with real people’s lives.

The Cons

Aside from the writing style, readers may want to be aware that the story includes both f/f and f/m sexual content, and that the latter tends to predominate in the early chapters of the book. (Keep hanging on and work your way through!)

The Conclusion

This is, as far as I know, the only full-length fictional treatment of d’Aubigny’s life in English. (The less said about Théophile Gautier’s decadent 19th century novel based on her the better.) That alone makes it worth devouring. And if you think you might like to try some more experimental prose styles, d’Aubigny’s adventures can carry you through any initial trepidation. Now give me the movie!

Excerpt from Goddess by Kelly Gardiner

The Comtesse tilts her head to one side to gaze more attentively at her guest. It is, she has been told, her most becoming pose. ‘It must be difficult—so many new things to learn.’

‘There are harder things in life than learning to sing.’

‘Of course.’

The girl senses the fragrance of honeysuckle, of face powder, of desire. She takes a breath and hears it shudder in her throat. Holds her glass up to her lips. She thinks she might be blushing.

‘This is good wine.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Lovely house.’

‘I’m so glad you like it. I hope you will come to visit me often, come to think of it as your home.’

The girl laughs. Her teeth are perfect. ‘Comtesse, this is nothing like any home I’ve ever had.’

‘But you grew up, I understand, at the palace.’

‘You understand an awful lot, don’t you?’

It’s the Comtesse’s turn to laugh. ‘I admit I have made it my business to find out as much as I can about you.’

‘Everything?’

‘The important matters. Your escapades are many and—’

‘I hope not.’

‘Fascinating.’

‘Not to me.’ Now Julie takes a gulp of wine—too much. A drop splashes “on her breeches.

The Comtesse pretends she hasn’t seen it. ‘You are a remarkable creature, my dear. I wonder if you have any idea how extraordinary you are?”

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