3.25.2011

The Orange Trees of Versailles, written by Annie Pietri, translated by Catherine Temerson, 138 pp, RL 4


The Orange Trees of Versailles by Annie Petri is a treat to read - a historical fiction amuse-bouche just right for young readers. Besides the fascinating trait of the main character - fourteen-year old Marion Dutilleul is a "nose," a creator of perfumes with a photographic olfactory memory -she is also the daughter of the gardener in charge of the orange trees at Versailles. Marion is quickly caught up in palace intrigue when she becomes the servant of the Marquise de Montespan, the favorite of Louis XIV. While this is a short book and not too difficult to read, once you get over all the French names, there are a few mature themes, such as "favorites" of the king and use of witchcraft by superstitious members of the court that make it more suitable for older readers. As with any historical fiction for young readers, there are hardships, cruelties and sometimes brutalities that make up essential parts of the plot because that is how society functioned at the time. In spite of, or perhaps because of this, The Orange Trees of Versailles is a superb slice of life at Versailles during the reign of the Sun King.


The real orange trees at Versailles


Under two hundred pages, The Orange Trees of Versailles moves at a swift pace. No sooner is Marion placed in the servitude of Athénaïs, Madame la Marquise, than she is called upon to be a "busy girl," a servant who spends the night in the Marquise's room doing busy work and keeping the candles burning so that the Marquise can sleep. It seems that astrologers have convinced her that she should never be alone, especially at night, and that she will die during a storm. Marion experiences this first hand when she begins work on a stormy day and the Marquise's ill behaved dog Pyrrhos bites her on the calf as she attempts to comfort her new mistress. On her first night as a busy girl, the Marquise seems to know of Marion's gift and presents her with an ornate box filled with "thirty-two flasks lined up in four rows [that] filled three quarters of the box. The remaining space contained perfume-making accessories." When Marion can read the labels of the flasks, Athénaïs is shocked. Marion tells her that her mother, who died when she was ten, taught her how to read and write. Since her mother's death, Marion has not been able to sleep more than a couple of hours at a time and cannot stand the smell of blood. The Marquise is pleased with the perfume that Marion makes her and Marion begins to think that she is working for an angel. Marion retreats to the greenhouse of her childhood to perform her personal ritual. At important times in her life, good and bad, Marion writes her thoughts onto a scroll, slips it into a small bottle with an orange blossom and buries it on the grounds of the garden, feeling,

relieved, as though she had just been delivered from a burden that was too heavy for her frail shoulders . . . Soothed by the scent of the grass, the moss, and the heather, her head resting on her bundle of belongings, Marion fell asleep. She knew that the sap would carry her words from the roots of the oak all the way up to the top of the tree. The tall trees, their leaves rustling in the breeze, would whisper her secrets from branch to breeze, leaf to leaf . . . Her torments, her joys, and dreams, confided to the earth of Versailles, would be swept up into the sky by the trees, just as a lost sailor puts all his suffering and hopes into a bottle he casts into the sea.

This lovely imagery and peaceful moment is short lived. Marion overhears the Marquise tell the King that a very expensive perfumer in Florence created her scent, the one that she had Marion make for her. From there, Marion is witness to the Marquise's strange sleep-talk and a meeting with La Voisin. A real person, Catherine Monvoisin, or La Voisin, was convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake in 1679 for her role in the Affaire des Poisons that rocked the court from 1677 through 1682 and provides plot elements to The Orange Trees of Versailles. In reality, the Marquise was implicated but never investigated and her place as the favorite remained firm for a few more years, allowing her to give birth to seven illegitimate children fathered by King Louis XIV. Château de Clagny and the unbelievable pleasure pavilion Trianon de Porcelaine, made entirely from porcelain tiles, really were built for her by the king.

Despite the devious and wicked ways of the Marquise, Marion is able to use her intelligence and skills with fragrances to prevent the murder of Queen Marie-Thérèse. After suffering the vile smells of life in the palace - as Petrie informs us in her Author's Note (which also includes great information about being a "nose" and the techniques of perfume manufacturing) this was a time when people were afraid of water, "believing that it carried the miasmas of the plague" - Marion creates an elixir that, when dabbed under her nose, prevents her sensitive nose from smelling these odors. When she uses it to revive the Marquise after a fainting spell in the gardens of Trianon de Porcelain, the Marquise sets her plan in action and Marion knows she has only days to thwart it. The suspense it thick and the riches of the court sumptuously described throughout the book as Marion struggles to do what is right while remaining true to her gift. A very satisfying ending with some revelations about Marion's past makes The Orange Trees of Versailles all the better.

Trianon de Porcelaine

Chateau de Clagny


  
Marquise de Montespan
King Louis XIV
La Voisin


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