Michelle's Reviews > The Académie

The Académie by Susanne Dunlap
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bookshelves: arc, historical-fiction, history, racism, young-adult

I suppose I should start off with the fact that this is fiction based VERY loosely on historical figures and events; the story is made up, but the names are real. Considering how frequently I air my (occasionally annoying) thoughts pertaining to accuracy in details as they apply to persons, places, and events that were real, it will probably come as a surprise that - though Dunlap played fast and loose with her fiction and fact - it didn't really bother me. (Are you shocked? I was.) Maybe it is because her primary characters were people that I knew of but little about. She keeps the external historical details fairly accurate while making the events most intimate to the characters primarily fiction. That seemed to make it somehow okay. I was able to read the entire novel without feeling the need to flip to the back of the book or pull up google to fact-check, which is a testament to just how engrossing I found The Académie.

Dunlap's characters captured me and wouldn't let me go. The four young women central to the plot were all very honest, believable portrayals of young ladies of their time and in their positions. They were exceptionally well developed - vibrant and vital - and capable of creating strong emotions. Sadly, my primary emotions were dislike, disdain, and less frequently sympathy. I think it another testament to Dunlap's talent that the latter was even possible. Every time I would start to like a character, or think perhaps I had been too hard on them, they would do something so self-serving or cruel that I was right back at square one.

The Académie is written in a very intimate first person style that feels almost like diary entries, and alternates perspective between three of the four main characters. While reading their alternating views of events, I was constantly reminded of something a teacher once said, 'rarely does someone think they are the villain in their own story.' We switch between seeing the excuses for and the effects of each girl's actions, and it is enlightening in a horrifying sort of way. To see how cruelly something can be felt by someone, followed by what the other actually intended to happen was fascinating. Which is why, even though I really didn't like these girls, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about them. This pulling closer to and pushing away from each of the characters with the change of narration also gave the girls' characters added depth that I didn't at first suspect. I don't think they would feel so terrible if they were not so real. Each time I was with a character, I sympathized with them, and could understand their actions if not condone them. (And to be truthful, Madeleine and Hortense weren't actually that bad until later in the book. I am also thankful that Dunlap never gave Caroline control of the narration - that is one head I do not want to be in.)

Overall I actually really liked The Académie, and thought it was very well done. I will definitely read other books by Dunlap, and think she is a skilled author. However, I do have one problem with The Académie - and it is a rather large one. Dunlap (per her Author's Note) purposely attempted to explore 18th century racism and the issue of slavery. She attempted to display it in all its ugliness, and then show how circumstances could change people's opinions, allowing 'shaded feelings' on the issues. She particularly tried to show this in the character of Eliza. While I greatly appreciate the attempt, I think she was unfortunately so successful in the first part of her aim that she utterly failed in the second. I did not get 'shaded feelings' from Eliza. Her behavior to the French servants early in the book was so cruel (and her thoughts about both the servants in France and the slaves at home so dismissive) that her turnabout toward African-American slaves at the end felt contrived and inauthentic to her character. Eliza's behavior with Madeleine felt believable insofar as she had already invested in Madeleine's humanity, and could not take it back. It has been repeatedly documented throughout history that exceptionally racist people can be adept at compartmentalizing those feelings - suspending them when confronted with a single individual they come to know while still maintaining them against a race as a whole. Nothing ever makes me think this is not the case with Eliza and Madeleine. (Nor does the actual life story of Eliza Monroe - as seen in a few hours of googling - ever betray hints of these conflicted feelings.)

Perhaps it is only a product of my own privilege (that of having education and experiences which allow me to not be racist) but I find the book's implications to be both insulting and patronizing. I strongly resent the idea that it takes being thrown into close proximity to or intimacy with an individual of another race (or sexual orientation, or sex, or gender, or (dis)ability, or religion, etc.) to recognize their humanity. (Or, conversely, that racism, sexism, etc. arise from a lack of experience with people who are different.) I call BS. Over and over again we see people who were 'products' of the very same times, situations and circumstances as racist individuals who, unlike their less open-minded peers, were instead quite aware of the inherent humanity of people different from themselves. (In counterpoint to Eliza - white, southern, and/or wealthy people who were abolitionists and members of the Underground Railroad.) There are people out there who can recognize the basic common humanity of us all - no matter in which society, time, or income class they lived. I think it sells humanity as a whole short to say that we must all be taught or forced to recognize this. Yes, a person who is merely self-absorbed may be made to see that they have been unintentionally or unknowingly cruel or racist, and will then change. (Oskar Schindler as he was portrayed in Schindler's List comes to mind.) However, people who are truly racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) are rarely going to shed those beliefs that simply. I willingly admit I could be wrong, and would welcome thoughts on the topic.
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Reading Progress

March 3, 2012 – Started Reading
March 3, 2012 – Shelved
March 4, 2012 –
page 196
53.26% "This is very interesting but I sort of despise all the girls. Well, at least Caroline and Eliza."
March 4, 2012 –
page 333
90.49% "Wait, WHAT just happened?!"
March 4, 2012 – Finished Reading
March 8, 2012 – Shelved as: arc
March 8, 2012 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
March 8, 2012 – Shelved as: history
March 8, 2012 – Shelved as: racism
March 8, 2012 – Shelved as: young-adult

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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Flannery YES. I agree on all counts. The biggest negative for me was how contrived Eliza's complete turnabout was--I didn't find it realistic that she would just suddenly change her tune after just a few interactions with Madeleine. Every person did not treat their servants the same way so surely she must've seen some people treat others with kindness at some point in her life. She had to know it was cruel and inappropriate beforehand, didn't she?

I also googled Eliza Monroe after the fact and read what Dunlap wrote about in the acknowledgments. I appreciate the characters and the history there but I wish she hadn't made some people to be much better versions of themselves than they probably were. Why invent an abolitionist history for Eliza where there was none in recorded history? For all we know, she could've felt the complete opposite. The history on her paints her as a haughty woman.

Michelle Flannery wrote: "Why invent an abolitionist history for Eliza where there was none in recorded history?"

Exactly! I find that to be highly unlikely considering how conflicting President Monroe's own actions and professed beliefs were, and with nothing about Eliza's stance on slavery on record at all. (I would assume that if she had had any sort of abolitionist tendencies, surly it would have been written about - that which is uncommon is usually more noteworthy.) Also, it doesn't bode well for her being a kind person when the best historical fact Dunlap could find on her was that while her father was in office - no campaigning there! - she helped nurse some (ostensibly white) people during a fever outbreak where she was living and, therefore, already exposed.

(view spoiler)

This is why I have a love/hate relationship with historical fiction.

Flannery I just realized I never responded to your second comment, but I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that I agree:) I'm trying to come up with my review for the blog tomorrow and I keep thinking that I wish I hadn't read your review because you brought up so many wonderful points.

Michelle Flannery wrote: "I just realized I never responded to your second comment, but I'm sure it comes as no surprise to you that I agree:) I'm trying to come up with my review for the blog tomorrow and I keep thinking t..."

Thank you! I consider that very high praise. (And I know the exact feeling. I used to read a lot of reviews as a reader only. However, I am starting to just glance at the star ratings and reading the books before reviews now that I blog. So many of you guys write such excellent reviews I am concerned that I will inadvertently steal intellectual property. After all, once something has been pointed out with which you agree, it is hard to ignore it in a review of your own!)

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