Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R.
DeSanti breathes life into an era rife with change, a fallen girl seduced by love in her small village hugging the Pyrenees, a goose girl unprepared for the passions that sweep reason aside. Ensconced in a Paris hotel in 1860, her lover leaves, failing to return as promised. Sixteen-year-old Eugenie Rigault is alone—with child and without means or opportunity in a city of excess pre-Franco-Prussian War. Female morals dictated by the rigid Code Civil, Eugenie is conscripted into a brothel, hopeless and penniless, assigned to a place in an upscale establishment, registered with the Prefecture, marked by her new profession in an unforgiving society.
This is the story of Eugenie’s journey through the lowest of circumstances from her love affair with an inconstant aristocrat, the birth of her daughter, and the relinquishing of that beloved child to a system blind to a mother’s claims, when that woman bears the taint of prostitution. From the hedonistic years of the Second Empire of Napoleon III to war with Mexico, an arrangement with an American Son of the Confederacy in Paris to garner support for the South’s cause, the siege of Paris by the Prussian Army, and an abiding relationship with the enigmatic and beautiful Jolie, a mentor from those early brothel days, Eugenie makes her way through society with the limitations of her profession. She uses her writing skills to avoid unsavory commitments yet remains devoted to the women who have supported her through the most terrible of times.
Never free of the longing to reunite with her daughter, Eugenie’s life parallels the city of Paris on a collision course with history, seething with poverty and discontent while the rich temporize on the eve of defeat: “It is a weak society that depends on wars abroad and selling women’s bodies at home.” After the first rush of passion with the faithless aristocrat in her village, Eugenie faces the dire truth of her situation: “I began to shed… the fur-matted, pond-bathed, forest-floor earthy roughness in which I had lived all my life.” Forced to register by the law, Eugenie is marked forever by that first profession.
Melding the personal struggle of her protagonist with the colorful canvas of a city in flux, DeSanti creates a world of rogues, romantics, poseurs and politicians, where wealth and privilege purchase freedom from the despair and daily tragedies of the poor. Never free of fear either emotionally or financially, Eugenie grows into herself in this hostile environment in spite of her circumstances. Buoyed by Jolie’s constancy and the generosity of other fallen women, she reunites with her first lover only to face another betrayal and learns the dimension of her folly: “My efforts added up to the story of one for whom all the stories had failed.”
Unflagging, DeSanti’s heroine is reborn from the detritus of her mistakes and survives war, chaos and personal tragedy in the streets of Paris, drawn into the revolution long-stirring in the hearts of frustrated Parisians. Related in vivid detail, Paris flounders, rises to its own defense and recreates itself—as does Eugenie, a fallen woman, an artist’s muse and a revolutionary’s lover, but mostly a devoted mother and a daughter of France.