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Review: Amandine, Marlena de Blasi

Amandine is an aristocratic child born of scandal in Poland just before World War II.  She is born nameless, with a heart condition that means her continued survival is unlikely.  Unable to bear the child’s presence, Amandine’s grandmother sends her to foster in a convent in France, careful to hide all traces of her ancestry bar one, an heirloom necklace.  She even tells her daughter, Amandine’s mother, that her daughter has died while having surgery as an infant.  Instead, miraculously, Amandine grows up dreaming of her mother, finding substitutes along the way, but never losing grasp of the fact that she has a mother who might want her.  When World War II breaks out, Amandine and her guardian Solange set out across France, determined to find a safe haven in a country torn apart by war, and perhaps to find someone who recognizes the peculiar antique necklace Amandine wears.

In terms of plot, Amandine gets off to a painful start.  The first chapters are riddled with the old countess’s (the grandmother’s) memories and the story of Amandine’s birth.  There are pages of description and little to no action.  Once Amandine gets to the convent, things pick up slightly and it’s easy to feel for the poor girl.  When she goes to school, she is constantly mocked and also suffers when she has to watch the other girls reunite each weekend with their families.  She has her long term guardian, Solange, but she’s no substitute for Amandine’s mother, no matter how much they love one another.  Even as a child, Amandine is full of spirit and determined to defend herself and those she cares about, which makes it very easy for us as readers to care for her in turn.  The rest of the characters are very well fleshed out, with believable internal conflicts revealed fairly slowly as the first half goes on.  I really felt that this was a book populated by people, not just characters, if that makes sense.

The plot picks up even more once the war arrives and with a few perspective shifts; the contrast between war-ravaged France and Poland and the initial chapters in the convent is striking.  De Blasi effortlessly conveys the utter pointlessness of the war and the fragility of life at the time with a few well-written passages.  Characters that were built up in the first chapters as complex human beings are struck down with barely a moment’s notice.  The author’s writing is beautifully descriptive and I got a real feel for convent life and the French countryside, which makes the chapters about war even harder to read in comparison.  And throughout, I was constantly hoping for Amandine to find her mother, which adds an extra layer of tension to the book’s concluding chapters.

Despite a slow start, Amandine revealed itself as a complex, engaging historical novel with strong characters and a distinct French atmosphere.  It’s the perfect choice for the historical fiction reader craving a thoughtful read.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.

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