The Orange Trees of Versailles

by Annie Pietri

I’ll admit it: I often judge a book by its cover, particularly at the library, where I found this slim volume faced out in a display of historical fiction. When standing before shelf upon shelf of plastic wrapped spines, there’s very little to steer you towards one book or another if you haven’t come with a list, so I’m happy to

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let an intriguing name and a colorful picture reel me in. With The Orange Trees of Versailles staring down at me, the blonde girl on its cover daintily sniffing the blossom of a potted tree on the palace grounds, I was hoping for a sort of a Tudors Jr. en France.

A truly strange book, The Orange Trees of Versailles is about an imagined young woman with an aptitude for perfumes named Marion. Daughter of a gardener at the Palace of Versailles, Marion enters the service of Françoise-Athénaïs, an actual historical figure, who was the Marquis de Montespan and the favorite mistress of King Louis the fourteenth. The book creates a suggestion of what might have happened around the “Affaire des Poisons”, the Poisons Affair, a scandal that erupted in 1675 when many women of Louis XIV’s court appear to have been running around poisoning members of the aristocracy and participating in witchcraft: The French have always known how to have a good time.  While many of the details of the Poisons Affair are not

actually known, and the Marquis was never formally implicated, Orange Trees offers a suggestion of how it might have all gone down.

In Orange Trees, the Marquis, however beautiful, is highly calculating, and dangerously superstitious. She consults with swarms of astrologers and soothsayers, forces her attendants to watch over her as she sleeps, covets the throne, participates in an act called the “Black Mass”, is jealous, manipulative, abusive, and frankly, quite a lot of fun from a reader’s point of view. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned much about the story’s main character Marion yet, and that’s likely because her frail, temperamental little presence is nearly swallowed whole by the vividness of the Marquis, to the great detriment of the book.   

Marion distinguishes herself among the Marquis’ servants with her keen sense of smell and ability to create exquisite perfumes, but her nose is about the most exciting of Marion’s virtues. Her ambitions and passions are ambiguous at best, and she lacks any kind of character that the reader might be able to hang on to. In fact, she’s a bit touchy, with no sense of humor, and even a trace of arrogance that blossoms when the Marquis fails to acknowledge her as the maker of the perfume that she wears, which the King compliments. This slight turns Marion against the Marquis, leading the young perfumer to discover Athénaïs’ plot to poison the Queen. She somehow manages to summon the pluck necessary to thwart the Marquis, but I found it hard to believe that such a fragile and swoony maiden would suddenly find the courage to go up against a woman who apparently had no scruples about using infants in ritualistic sacrifice or poisoning monarchs.  Rather than seeming heroic, Marion comes across as the self-righteous little snitch who tattles and is rewarded by the teacher. One can’t help but sneer as she is granted a ride on a golden boat for her service to the throne.

I find it extremely curious that this subject matter was ever considered as fitting material for a middle grade children’s book. If the full account of historical events were depicted, the book would be deep into “R-rated” territory, but the cleaning up of this story for a younger audience strips if of anything that might make it interesting. What’s left is a bland and moralistic little story that leaves you with lots of perverse unanswered questions (What exactly is a Black Mass?), and the notion that you really shouldn’t try to poison people.

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen

Recommended for: Ages 12 and Up, for some social complexities and mild themes of violence. With its waifish female main character and abundance of corsets, velvet draperies and horse drawn carriages, this book will likely

have no appeal to boys.

One Word Summary: Perplexing.


© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012