James's Reviews > The Blue

The Blue by Nancy Bilyeau
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
9462769
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: currently-reading

Crime fiction is primarily a literature of human behavior under extreme moral pressure. At its worst, it is sensationalist and emotionally shallow at one extreme, and escapist and emotionally inauthentic at the other. But at its best, it is a contemplation on the power of evil acting upon both the innocent and the culpable, the dangers and rewards of shadowy compromise on the one hand and moral inflexibility on the other, and the confused morass of human motivations and interactions.

Good historical crime fiction, by changing its cultural context to another time, compelling the reader to compare the past with the present, benefits by limning these issues against an ethical background that starkly contrasts with the familiar. In 18th century England, a pickpocket could be hanged for stealing a handkerchief, but human trafficking was perfectly lawful.

By their nature, historical mysteries provide the reader with two complementary insights.

The first is an awareness of how differently people behaved in the past than they do today, conveying how much our attitudes have evolved over time, and stimulates meditation regarding our ethical evolution our time, good and bad.

The second, and to my mind, more important, is an awareness of how much people remain very much the same, and how much their existence is governed by their essential humanity, irrespective of the wider circumstances. Crimes and sins may change, but love, hate, hunger, greed, and compassion, to name just a few characteristics, are eternal.

As are certain themes—the themes explored by Nancy Bilyeau.

In her new novel, The Blue, Bilyeau revisits several of the dominant themes she explored in her well-received earlier trilogy featuring Joanna Stafford, a displaced young nun in Henry VIII’s England, but sets the drama in 18th century England and France, during the Seven Years’ War. Like the Stafford novels, The Blue is a first-person narrative (but in present tense) told by an artistically gifted young woman frustrated by the restrictions placed upon her in the society in which she lives. Along the way, there are other similarities: discussions on the nature and abuse of power, the major and minor tragedies attending religious intolerance, the role and purpose of art, the loneliness of exile, the pitfalls of overweening ambition, the need for painstaking discretion to avoid peril, the challenges of keeping a pure conscience, the pain of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), and romantic love as a means of salvation.

It may seem on the surface that The Blue is a reiteration of the story told in The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. Even the similarity of all the titles may seem to indicate that the books are all one of a piece. But this is misleading.

Joanna Stratford was a nun who had to learn how to live out of the cloister as a layperson against her will. Genevieve Planché, the protagonist of The Blue, is a third generation English Huguenot, a staunchly anti-Catholic Calvinist, who knows exactly how to thrive in her community as far as she is allowed to do so, but dares to dream of a more fulfilling existence. Joanna lost her vocation, but Genevieve is looking for how to enter hers: she longs to be a serious painter in oils, an occupation closed to women. (The first celebrated female portraitist was still a generation away: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was only three years old when The Blue takes place, and was a scion of Paris salon society rather than a middle-class member of an iconoclastic sect.)

And the title has a secondary meaning from its literal one. Crowns, chalices, and tapestries, while powerful symbols, are tangible things. The color blue, however, is an abstraction, tangible only to the eye, and was at the time the most sought after tincture in the spectrum. A rich, enveloping, royal blue—although there was Prussian blue available at the time, it was not considered entirely adequate—a blue that was just beyond the reach of art. Like Genevieve’s ambition, it was an artistic goal fraught with barriers and obstacles.

Although Genevieve’s quest is directed squarely at canvas, the primary medium for this color to which Bilyeau directs our attention is fine porcelain: delicate, fragile, sublime, formed through a metamorphosis of rough clay, God’s earthly material for creating Man, into something altogether precious and celestial, the paragon of taste and elegance.

Something that leads beyond simple avarice. Something that leads to obsession.

That singular theme is something new in her work, and imbues her story with an even greater psychological depth.

Nancy Bilyeau has given us a world of industrial espionage and international intrigue, high art and low cunning, profound love and intractable hatred, rational discourse and irrational behavior, all for the love of a color, painted in deft strokes both fine and broad. The Blue is a triumph.

[Full disclosure: this book was provided to me by the author’s publicist at the author’s request. I moderated Nancy Bilyeau’s first appearance in a panel at a mystery convention, Bouchercon XLIV in 2013 in Albany, NY. The topic was historical mysteries.]
3 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read The Blue.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

November 18, 2018 – Started Reading
November 18, 2018 – Shelved

No comments have been added yet.