It is the turn of the eighteenth century, and France is on the cusp of scientific and aeronautical achievement. Ballooning is seen as one of man's finest endeavors, but until now women have been limited to being passengers. The young, adventuresome Sophie Blanchard is determined to change this.
Author Linda Donn begins her tale of Sophie when she
is a young girl living a quiet life in the provincial French town of La Saliere. Wistful and idealistic, she wanders the beach by her house, seeking inspiration on her future and playing a wishing game by looking into the faces of seashells.
Sophie hopes that someday she will be able to marry the poor and kindly Andre Giroux, her childhood sweetheart. Her quixotic dreams, however, are shattered when the renowned adventurer
- and far wealthier - Jean-Pierre Blanchard arrives in town with a promise of betrothal. An old family friend, Jean-Pierre once pledged a romantic gesture to lift her family out of poverty; Georges, her dictatorial father, is determined that the marriage will go ahead.
This is not a time when girls choose their husbands, and in La Saliere no one
is as rich as Jean-Pierre. Although Sophie is not a good match for Jean-Pierre - he complains to his sisters of her thinness and her vivid face, preferring
a more full-figured woman - he unhesitatingly packs the girl off with him to the town of Les Petits-Andelys, later to Paris.
A renowned aeronaut, Jean-Pierre is the first to drop animals in parachutes, the first to try to control his flights with sails and rudders, and the first to cross the English Channel. But all Sophie knows of her husband that he is famous and that he flies through the air in a basket. Never comfortable ballooning and plagued by an irrational fear of falling, Jean-Pierre eventually confesses to Sophie that he is happier just to just look up at the sky.
Seeing an opportunity to finally make something of herself, Sophie takes over the balloon ascensions, taking to the sky like a bird. When the ground falls away, she feels "light, as if she had left her body on the earth," looking for a storm to push her through the "fissure of heavens." But even as Jean-Pierre has allowed her to taste the freedom of flight, she still pines for Andrés, her true love, and she "wonders if like a doubled thread of a balloon's silk, it might have made their love stronger."
The details of the period are meticulously researched, and Donn writes
expertly of time and place, but she also suggests a parallel between Sophie's
ascent into the heavens and the ascent to power of Napoleon Bonaparte. While Sophie pines for her true love, soon becoming a symbol for the people of France, Napoleon steadily becomes more besotted with this courageous and spirited young woman, even inviting the heroine to become his ''official aeronaute."
The author cleverly merges the threads of Sophie's life into the wider canvas of French cultural and social life, her story set against a background of a nation reeling from political instability. Napoleon is rampaging across Europe, the new republic declaring
war on Austria, republicans against royalists, republicans against republicans, everybody intent on
overthrowing their rulers.
It's just a pity that Donn hasn't fleshed out her story more. Her style is at
times too prosaic, containing scenes that feel rushed with too little character development, as though in an effort to get her story down on the page,
Donn has left her ability to create solid narrative behind. At times the novel is so breathy it barely holds together.
Still, The Little Balloonist does show a France on the cusp of profound change, the grand technical accomplishments of ballooning emblematic of the democratic spirit slowly taking root. Watching Sophie soar above the French laypeople through limitless skies is indeed thrilling, perhaps reminding us and the French of the freedoms that they have been fighting so hard to attain.