The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Women of Chateau Lafayette
The Women of Chateau Lafayette
by Stephanie Dray

Paperback (15 Mar 2022), 592 pages.
Publisher: Berkley Books
ISBN-13: 9781984802132
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An epic saga from New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray based on the true story of an extraordinary castle in the heart of France and the remarkable women bound by its legacy.

Most castles are protected by men. This one by women.

A founding mother...

1774. Gently-bred noblewoman Adrienne Lafayette becomes her husband, the Marquis de Lafayette's political partner in the fight for American independence. But when their idealism sparks revolution in France and the guillotine threatens everything she holds dear, Adrienne must renounce the complicated man she loves, or risk her life for a legacy that will inspire generations to come.

A daring visionary...
1914. Glittering New York socialite Beatrice Chanler is a force of nature, daunted by nothing—not her humble beginnings, her crumbling marriage, or the outbreak of war. But after witnessing the devastation in France firsthand, Beatrice takes on the challenge of a lifetime: convincing America to fight for what's right.

A reluctant resistor...
1940. French school-teacher and aspiring artist Marthe Simone has an orphan's self-reliance and wants nothing to do with war. But as the realities of Nazi occupation transform her life in the isolated castle where she came of age, she makes a discovery that calls into question who she is, and more importantly, who she is willing to become.

Intricately woven and powerfully told, The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sweeping novel about duty and hope, love and courage, and the strength we take from those who came before us.

One
MARTHE

Chavaniac-Lafayette
The Free Zone
October 1940

I've almost made it, I think, pedaling my bicycle faster when I see the castle's crenelated tower at the summit. I've ridden past yellowing autumn farmland, past the preventorium's dormitories for boys, and past the terra-cotta-roof-topped houses of the village. And despite blistered feet and scuffed saddle shoes, I'm feeling cocky.

As I near the castle proper, I'm no longer worried anyone is going to take what I've carried all this way, which is probably why I'm so surprised to see Sergeant Travert's old black Citro'n parked by the village fountain.

Malchance! What shit luck.

Sergeant Travert patrols our village every evening on his way home. For some reason the gendarme is early today, and having stalled out his jalopy, he's got the hood up to repair it.

I try to ride past, but he notices and waves me over.

My heart sinks as Travert approaches, doffing his policeman's cap, then resting his hand on his holstered pistol. "What have we here, mademoiselle?"

I pretend to be calm while he peers into my bicycle pannier baskets. "Just some supplies from Paulhaguet."

That's the nearest little town, where I bought dried sausage with ration coupons, but I traded on the black market to get sugar, paper for my classroom, and medicine for the doctors at the preventorium.

Black market barters for hard-to-find goods are illegal. I took the risk anyway for a good cause, but I had a selfish motive too. One the snooping constable uncovers with a disapproving arch of his bushy brow. "Cigarettes?"

According to our new leader, Marshal PŽtain, Frenchwomen who smoke-not to mention foreigners and unpatriotic schoolteachers-are to blame for France's defeat.

Personally, I think it had more to do with Hitler.

Maybe it even had to do with military leaders like PŽtain who believed in fairy tales like the stupid Maginot Line to keep us safe. I can't say something like that, though. I shouldn't even think something like that about the Marshal-the man who saved France in the last war, and, as everyone says, the only man who can save us now.

But merde, what smug idiots got us into this war?

Hitler's panzer divisions rolled past French defenses five months ago. The Allies fled at Dunkirk, leaving forty thousand French soldiers to cover their retreat and hold the Germans back. All for nothing. Eighteen days later, we surrendered, to the shock of the world. Like almost everyone else, I was relieved; I thought the fighting would stop and that Henri would come home. But now a swastika is flying over the Eiffel Tower, and France-or what's left of her below the line of demarcation-is neutral while Britain fights on, alone.

Almost two million French soldiers are prisoners of war-including Henri. My Henri. Given all that, smoking is the only thing keeping me sane, so the lie comes easily. "The cigarettes are for the baron."

The gendarme looks over his shoulder at the castle and says, "I took the Baron de LaGrange more for a man who prefers a pipe."

The baron is now the acting president of the preventorium. The baroness trained as a nurse in the last war and has a knack for organization, but unfortunately, women aren't supposed to run anything now, so her husband got the job. And as the founder of an elite pilots' training school and a senator with connections in the new Vichy government, the baron is too powerful to question about cigarettes.

Travert knows it and knits those bushy brows.

For a moment, I think he'll shrug and walk away. Instead, he sweeps autumn leaves off the low stone wall and leans against it. "It gets lonely around here these days, mademoiselle, does it not? Tell me, what does a schoolteacher with such pretty blue eyes do when class is not in session?"

"I lie about eating chocolates." What does he think? There are four hundred sick children to feed at the preventorium-which means growing vegetables, milking cows in the dairy, and helping to raise and butcher pigs.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray. Copyright © 2021 by Stephanie Dray. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Which heroine's story did you enjoy reading the most? Which one inspired you the most or made you the most emotional? Which heroine do you most identify with?
  2. Of Adrienne's many acts of courage, which one stands out in your memory the most? What do you think you would have done in her place?
  3. In what ways can Adrienne be considered our French Founding Mother? And in what ways was Adrienne weaker or stronger than her war hero husband?
  4. Beatrice Chanler was the wife of a millionaire. She could have stayed out of both world wars if she'd wanted to. Why did she fling herself into the war relief effort? And why did she feel so obligated to help children?
  5. How would you describe Beatrice's relationship with her husband, Willie Astor Chanler? What do you think was at the heart of the attraction? What about with Maxime? Do you agree with the choices Beatrice made? And in what ways did Beatrice's friendship with Emily become more important than her romantic relationships?
  6. It took Marthe a long time to translate her frustration, anger, and disgust at the Vichy regime into concrete action. That mirrors the experience of the French people's slow-boiling fury at the situation that existed before the French Revolution. When is a person finally moved to act? And are younger people, like Marthe, quicker and more willing to take those risks?
  7. How did Marthe change, grow, and mature over the course of the book, particularly with regard to why she should care about world events over which she felt she had so little control or influence? What about her determination to look out for me, myself, and I?
  8. What moment in Marthe's narrative stands out most strongly in your memory? What message do you take from her story?
  9. Lafayette's biographer, Laura Auricchio, wrote, "He lived in treacherous times and made imperfect choices. He failed at more ventures than most of us will ever attempt and succeeded at efforts that stymied countless men, but he never abandoned the belief that he could change the world, and he never despaired of success. Of all his accomplishments, these might be the most extraordinary." The spirit of this thought is summed up by his motto, Cur Non, meaning Why not? This idea was embraced by all the women in this novel. Is this motto still relevant today? If so, how might it help you in whatever you're facing?
  10. In the novel, lavish settings—like Versailles before the French Revolution or posh galas in New York—are juxtaposed against the deprivation of war-torn France. How did this impact your emotions and experience as you were reading?
  11. Did the novel make you curious to learn more about the history? Did you look anything up? If so, what and why?
  12. Are there any historical lessons that you learned from the women in this book that you think apply to current events? How can we learn from history?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Berkley Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Stephanie Dray is back with another stellar work of historical fiction.

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The Women of Chateau Lafayette, Stephanie Dray's latest work of historical fiction, revolves around three courageous individuals who navigate the dangers of warfare during different time periods: Adrienne Lafayette (1759-1807), a politically astute woman who helped her husband usher in the French Revolution only to narrowly survive its aftermath; Beatrice Ashley Chanler (c.1880-1946), a colorful New York actress who braved ocean crossings and bombed-out French towns to provide relief to World War I soldiers and support for children orphaned by the war; and Marthe, a fictional World War II heroine representing the unknown people responsible for rescuing Jewish children from the Gestapo. Tying the three women together is the Chateau Lafayette, the ancestral home of the Lafayette family, parts of which served as an orphanage and hospital during and after the two wars.

Dray bounces back and forth between the three women's timelines. Each section is narrated by one of them in the first person. It can be challenging to write a novel, particularly one of this length, where three similar characters retain distinct voices and personalities throughout, but the author allows each to clearly shine through — Adrienne, for example, is idealistic and religious while Beatrice is brash and unflappable. Marthe, Dray's purely fictional construct, is utterly believable and multifaceted.

The first half of the novel is primarily set-up, establishing the main characters' personalities and motivations — they're witnesses to history but haven't yet taken steps to become a part of it. The author accomplishes this superbly, and by the book's midpoint, we feel like each is an intimate friend. In addition, the level of historical detail Dray slips in here and there is marvelous. At one point, for instance, Marthe, a Frenchwoman, thinks that it's hard to consider the British allies "since Churchill bombed our fleet to keep it out of German hands" — an act that resulted in the deaths of 1,297 French mariners. In another chapter, Beatrice notes that the Eiffel Tower was "armed with antiaircraft guns and encircled with barbed wire." I truly enjoyed these tidbits of history — little details of the time periods that I knew nothing about. This first part of the novel is a bit slow-going (particularly when one keeps turning to Wikipedia for more information, as I did) but fascinating nonetheless.

Starting after page 200 or so, the action picks up as each of the heroines faces life-threatening circumstances. Dray's writing remains vivid from start to finish, but in this latter half there's less reflection and more movement. It's not as intellectually stimulating as the first half, perhaps, but it's at least as entertaining.

The author's note is enlightening, but I felt it did the book a bit of a disservice. Dray states that her purpose in writing the novel was to highlight how "the torch was passed to new generations who made [Chateau Lafayette] a sanctuary for orphaned children and orphaned ideals that lit the way for humanity through three of history's darkest hours." I never really felt the connection between the women or their ideals, though, and as a result the book was more like three unconnected stories. It seemed to me that this "passing of the torch" didn't really happen, narratively, and knowing that the author's stated goal wasn't achieved left me a bit dissatisfied with the end product as a whole. This feeling was exacerbated by Dray discussing the elements she left out of Adrienne's and Beatrice's stories; I wanted to know more about these women, and wondered if she would have been better off writing separate novels about each and including some of the information she chose to omit. In addition, I found the narrative's use of brief chapters to be disorienting. I'd find myself really getting involved in one plot, only to have to abruptly switch gears to resume one of the other storylines. This added to my opinion that the book could have been at least two and perhaps three separate works.

Those criticisms aside, The Women of Chateau Lafayette is historical fiction at its finest; each of the three stories is excellently crafted and contains a wealth of detail aficionados of the genre will enjoy. Dray's characterizations are top-notch and will likely earn the author both fans and accolades. The book is especially recommended for those who enjoy novels highlighting women's roles in history.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

BookPage (starred review)
Dray poignantly reminds us of the undervalued contributions of women throughout history.

Manhattan Book Review
What blew me away was not [the women's] strength—I've read more than enough novels and seen enough of the world to know how strong women are — but how distinct they are. They aren't just any three women; Stephanie Dray has breathed life into her protagonists…I loved sinking into this book, and anyone who enjoys historical fiction will as well.

O, the Oprah Magazine
[R]iveting…We can learn from Adrienne, Beatrice, and Marthe's stories, even as we're swept away.

Booklist (starred review)
Expert storytelling…highly recommended, sure to appeal to fans of women's fiction, WWII-era historical fiction, and the musical Hamilton.

Library Journal
Dray uses lavish historical detail in this extensively researched, sweeping novel. Recommended for fans of Edward Carey's Little and the works of Michelle Moran.

Publishers Weekly
Three women survive various wars in this ambitious, centuries-spanning outing from Dray...While Dray often rushes into summary of the first two women's narratives, the high emotions and careful plotting of Marthe's story compensates. Historical fiction fans will want to take a look.

Author Blurb Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author of The Book of Lost Names
If it's the details that bring historical fiction alive, Stephanie Dray has not only painted the most vivid world imaginable, but she has quite nearly created a veritable time machine to the past. The Women of Chateau Lafayette shines with her incredibly meticulous research, and against that masterfully built backdrop, she has placed three extraordinary women, each fighting her own battle in a different war, whose lives are connected in ways that will make your heart soar. You'll be mesmerized by this sprawling, epic, masterful tale of love, heartbreak, strength, and duty, all set across a century and a half of riveting French and American history. The fascinating Author's Note at the end is the final dusting of sugar on this complex, unforgettable French treat.

Author Blurb Natasha Lester, New York Times bestselling author of The Paris Secret
Just dazzling! Three women, three wars, one French chateau and a whole lot of heroism: The Women of Chateau Lafayette is quite simply breathtaking in its scope and accomplishment. Prepare to be swept away to France and beyond by a master storyteller.

Author Blurb Susan Meissner, author of The Nature of Fragile Things
Prepare to be swept away by utterly masterful storytelling. Stephanie Dray's The Women of Chateau Lafayette abounds with wartime intrigue, superb historical detail, and unforgettable women of courage you won't soon forget, nor should you. A captivating page-turner from first word to last.

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The Woman's Peace Party

WPP delegates to International Congress of Women, 1915 In The Women of Chateau Lafayette, New York socialite and war supporter Beatrice Ashley Chanler is often at odds with the Woman's Peace Party (WPP), an organization that opposed war in general and the United States' entry into World War I in particular.

Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, 1914, sparking a conflict that eventually involved many of the major countries on the planet. People in the US quickly started taking a stand on whether or not the nation should enter the fray. Pacifist organizations began arising, often led by women who had already been active in social organizations.

The WPP began in New York in August 1914, when a group of prominent socialites met at the Hotel McAlpin to plan a women's anti-war protest. The event, which has been referred to as a "mourning parade," took place on August 29, 1914, with around 1,500 women clad in black — or in white (as a symbol of peace) with black accessories — marching silently down Fifth Avenue.

On January 10, 1915, over 3,000 women met at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC to form a more permanent body: the WPP. The party was founded by Jane Addams, a well-known social activist, along with others, such as Fanny Garrison Villard, a prominent suffragist.

The group's stated aim was "to enlist all American Women to arousing the nation to respect the sacredness of human life and to abolish war." Its platform in 11 clauses was as follows:

  1. The immediate calling of a convention of neutral nations in the interest of early peace.
  2. Limitation of armaments and the nationalization of their manufacture.
  3. Organized opposition to militarism in our own country.
  4. Education of youth in the ideals of peace.
  5. Democratic control of foreign policies.
  6. The further humanizing of governments by the extension of the franchise to women.
  7. "Concert of Nations" to supersede "Balance of Power."
  8. Action toward the gradual organization of the world to substitute Law for War.
  9. The substitution of an international police for rival armies and navies.
  10. Removal of the economic cause of war.
  11. The appointment by our Government of a commission of men and women, with an adequate appropriation, to promote international peace.

The Washington Post reported on the meeting in detail, noting the group stressed the importance of women's suffrage, holding that "it was the inherent right of a mother to have a say in the blotting out of her son's life."

Following the formation of the WPP, the group's principles were printed in a pamphlet and widely distributed. In April of 1915, Addams and other WPP leaders participated in the International Congress for Women, held at The Hague in the Netherlands with over 1,000 women from different countries attending, where an agenda was laid out for ending the war and pursuing international peace.

The WPP faced stiff criticism. Former President Theodore Roosevelt called them "hysterical pacifists" with "silly and base" proposals, and J. Edgar Hoover labeled Addams "the most dangerous woman in America." (Addams would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, so obviously not everyone agreed with his assessment.)

By the time the US entered WWI in 1917, the WPP had over 40,000 members. However, the pacifist movement suffered a setback on June 15, 1917 with the passage of the Espionage Act, which imposed fines of up to $10,000 and as many as 20 years in jail for actions that could be interpreted as contrary to national defense, including attempts to hinder military recruitment. Many were prosecuted under the act, which has remained in effect ever since.

Pacifist organizing continued to evolve into a more international movement, and in 1919, it was decided that the WPP would become the US branch of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). The WILPF is still active today in more than 40 countries.

WPP delegates traveling to International Congress of Women at The Hague, Netherlands in 1915. Source: Bain News Service, Library of Congress

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By Kim Kovacs

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