Saturday, November 24, 2018

Review: THE BLUE by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau's latest historical mystery, THE BLUE (Endeavor Quill, December 3), offers readers refreshingly different fare: a foray into the fascinating world of eighteenth century porcelain production and its obsessive quest for beauty.

Genevieve Planché, the English-born daughter of French Huguenots, has artistic talent but lacks the training necessary to become a history painter. Such training--as potential mentors repeat whenever she approaches them--exceeds the capabilities of women. Chafing under societal restrictions that limit her to painting flowers on silk, Geneviève hardly hesitates when Sir Gabriel Courtenay, a mysterious nobleman with curious connections, offers to send her to Venice to study art. The price? The secret formula for a vibrant new blue reportedly under development at the Derby Porcelain Works, England's premier porcelain manufactory. Derby is banking on the new blue pigment to lift their product and reputation above the exquisite porcelain of Sèvres, France. Courtenay's offer entices Genevieve to accept a position as a decorator at Derby, and with few scruples, she sets about learning the secret of the new blue. Losing her heart to the brilliant young chemist working on the formula only complicates matters, and soon Genevieve finds herself embroiled in a dangerous plot that crosses borders and redefines loyalties and liberty.

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THE BLUE's particular strength lies in its convincing evocation of the porcelain phenomenon of the mid-18th century as the basis for dynamic intrigue. Bilyeau skillfully works her extensive research on the history and techniques of porcelain production into Genevieve's education, first at the hand of Sir Gabriel and later on-site at the Derby and Sèvres manufactories. Benefitting from Genevieve's lessons, the reader learns fascinating facts about the origins of porcelain and its development into a luxury commodity. With a good portion of the novel's action set in the manufactories themselves, the reader witnesesses not only the conditions and methods of production, but the severe safeguards companies employed in order to protect their commercial advantage. Bilyeau's mastery of her subject allows her to weave an intricate, compelling plot that hinges on industrial espionage without ignoring broader social issues. Her characters' obsessions and the risks they take to satisfy them capture the contemporary craze for expensive goods during an era of economic uncertainty. The question of the injustice of the rich spending hundreds of pounds on a painted plate while the poor starve gives Genevieve's personal strugges a gravitas that the character herself is quick to recognize.

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For Genevieve never hesitates to take a vocal stand against oppression, be it religious, economic, or social, and her dedication to her ideals entails significant personal sacrifice. As a Huguenot, she carries a deep antipathy to France's Catholic king, whose persecution of her co-religionists forced them to flee their homeland. Her outrage against this injustice endangers her mission and future when her search for the blue leads her to Sèvres. As a working class artisan, Genevieve sides with her radical fiancé Denis, who instigates violent uprisings among the Spitalfields silkworkers to demand better working conditions. Her relationship with Denis turns her into an outcast in the Spitalfields community and costs her her job as a silk painter. As a female artist, Genevieve argues against the proprieties and prejudices that deny talented women necessary training. Disdaining decoration, she aspires to paint the realities of street and workplace as an impetus for reform. Her exclusion by the male artistic establishment leaves her no option but to embark on a morally questionable mission, one that she does not hesitate to embrace in order to pursue her vocation. With insight and finesse, Bilyeau creates in Genevieve Planché a protagonist readers won't soon forget: a spirited, determined woman willing to confront injustice head-on in her fight for a better world.

Fans of Nancy Bilyeau's Tudor trilogy (THE CROWN, THE CHALICE, and THE TAPESTRY) will not be disappointed with her latest endeavor. Thought-provoking at times and entertaining throughout, THE BLUE deserves a spot at the top of every historical fiction lover's To-Be-Read pile.


Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News.

A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her fist novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, THE TAPESTRY, was published by Touchstone in 2015. Her fourth novel, THE BLUE, will be publishing on December 3, 2018.

Nancey lives in New York City with her husband and two children.

Visit Nancy's website or follow her on Twitter under the handle @tudorscribe.

Ten signed copies of THE BLUE are currently up for grabs in a Goodreads giveaway ending December 1, 2018. Click here to enter.