On a cloudless summer afternoon in 1789, labourers working in the fields around Montsignac, a village in Gascony, saw a man fall out of the sky.
The balloon had drifted over a wooded ridge and into their valley. The farmworkers, straightening up one by one, shaded their eyes against the dazzle of the sun on crimson and blue silk. The thing hung in the sky - sumptuous, menacing - like a sign from God or the devil. Then there was thunder and fire, and a man plummeting earthwards. It was the 14th of July. The world was about to change.
The timeless story of Sophie nursing the ambition to create a repeat-flowering crimson rose, the like of which has never been seen in Europe. Then Stephen, the American balloonist falling out of the sky and into Sophie's life - a love story that unfolds against the sensuous green landscape of Gascony. It is the 14th of July, the year is 1789 and revolution hangs in the air closing in on the private world of the Saint-Pierre family and threatening to change their world forever. Michelle de Krester's gripping tale of love, roses and the French revolution is seductive, moving and beautifully written. The popularity of this book has made it a bestseller in Australia and the UK and the US.
In an ambitious first novel, de Kretser records five years of the French Revolution (1789-1794) from the perspective of one family in southern France. Relying on passive recitation rather than action, however, her writing is neither nuanced nor direct enough to meet the challenge. Even before the uprisings, Sophie de Saint-Pierre's aristocratic but ruined family have been reduced to living in their rundown country estate outside of Castelnau, a small provincial town. Capable and kind but too plain and impoverished to attract the attention of suitors, Sophie expresses her passionate nature by tending a magnificent rose garden. When American artist Stephen Fletcher crash-lands his hot-air balloon in the Saint-Pierre's yard, his attentions are immediately captured by Sophie's beautiful older sister, Claire, whose unhappy marriage leaves her vulnerable to Stephen's courtship. Sophie pines for Stephen in silence, and doesn't notice that her own charms have at last been detected by Joseph Morel, a young physician. Joseph's humanitarian nature, humble upbringing and ideas for reforming contemporary medicine make him a prime candidate for revolutionary fervor, and he quickly becomes involved with Castelnau's pro-Revolution faction. This turn of events propels the Saint-Pierres out of their sequestered environment and into the political spotlight. De Kretser makes a valiant effort to paint an accurate picture of 18th-century life, and the book is grounded in atmospheric historical detail. However, the protagonists become defined by their broadly outlined positions, and eventually they are reduced to mere mouthpieces (Stephen for sanitation reform to prevent disease, Sophie for unmarried women, etc.) without internal conflict. Though the characters never really come to life, the novel's end gains momentum as the family finds its personal stake in the political turmoil.