The author of the Josephine B. novels returns with a story about a young, talented, untitled horsewoman with no financial advantages in 17th-century France who becomes a lady-in-waiting to Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, eventually catching the monarch’s eye.
Louise de la Valliere is a petite, unimposing child from a poor family. But the girl has an extraordinary gift for working with horses, as evidenced by her training of a wild white stallion, Diablo, when she is but a child. Believing she has dangerously invoked dark powers to calm Diablo, Louise (also known as Petite) begins a lifetime of inner dialog with her conscience.
Living in the royal courts in her late teens, Petite is attracted to the king, whom she first saw near her home, at the time thinking him a poacher. This romantic notion has always framed Louise’s view of Louis. When he reciprocates, she is lost, helpless to turn away his advances, even at the peril of her own soul.
Court intrigue swirls around her, but Petite remains private, jealously guarding her secret and increasingly enamored of her king. When she realizes she is pregnant, the reality of her situation is shocking and painful. Louise will not be allowed to raise her own children, sending them away for safety and to protect her reputation.
Of course, the court a hotbed of gossip, Petite’s secret eventually becomes common knowledge, although she is able to retain some privacy in a cottage she shares with Louis. A second blow follows: after years of faithful affection, Louis falls prey to the charms of other women, particularly one Louise trusted as a friend. Her conscience endlessly anguished, Louise must finally come to terms with the life choices she has made, the consequences for her children and her soul.
Gulland does a wonderful job of lifting her novel from the romantic to the more profound issues that assail this young woman. Unable to deny her passion, Louise struggles over the years to accommodate an ongoing affair with the king and the sin she carries. Over time, her transgressions are too difficult to ignore.
The historical details are compelling: the casual viciousness of court chatter, Louis’s insistence on having Louise as his lover, and the disposition of Louise’s children. Bowing finally to her conscience when the complications of the king’s love are too burdensome, Louise makes a final choice: “Sin was in her; she knew that. But she would not give way this time.”
Certainly, women in Louise’s position had few options in a male-dominated society, but she shows a generous spirit as a child calming Diablo and in her years with the king, finding peace at last far from the decadence of the royal court.