The Bee and the Orange Tree

Melissa Ashley

 
The Bee and the Orange Tree
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The Bee and the Orange Tree

Melissa Ashley

It’s 1699, and the salons of Paris are bursting with the creative energy of fierce, independent-minded women. But outside those doors, the patriarchal forces of Louis XIV and the Catholic Church are moving to curb their freedoms. In this battle for equality, Baroness Marie Catherine D'Aulnoy invents a powerful weapon: ‘fairy tales'.

When Marie Catherine’s daughter, Angelina, arrives in Paris for the first time, she is swept up in the glamour and sensuality of the city, where a woman may live outside the confines of the church or marriage. But this is a fragile freedom, as she discovers when Marie Catherine’s close friend Nicola Tiquet is arrested, accused of conspiring to murder her abusive husband. In the race to rescue Nicola, illusions will be shattered and dark secrets revealed as all three women learn how far they will go to preserve their liberty in a society determined to control them.

This keenly-awaited second book from Melissa Ashley, author of The Birdman’s Wife, restores another remarkable, little-known woman to her rightful place in history, revealing the dissent hidden beneath the whimsical surfaces of Marie Catherine’s fairy tales. The Bee and the Orange Tree is a beautifully lyrical and deeply absorbing portrait of a time, a place, and the subversive power of the imagination.

Review

I have been having a good run of ‘books with strong endings’ lately. Alice Robinson’s The Glad Shout’s nailbiting conclusion; the protagonist’s Shakespearean revelation in Fernanda Torres’s Glory and its Litany of Horrors, and, most recently, the final chapters of The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley. This novel by the author of The Birdman’s Wife, however, was an unusual read. My expectations of the novel as far as the focus of the book weren’t fully met; yet as a historical fiction experience, I was more than satisfied.

If you are after escapism, this is the book for you. I loved spending time in late seventeenth century Paris. The food! The clothes! The salon gatherings! In addition to all this sumptuousness, there are three diverse central female characters: the Baroness Marie Catherine D’Aulnoy, an actual historical figure and the inventor of the fairytale; her daughter Angelina, who is adjusting to life outside the convent; and, finally, Nicola Tiquet, who is a close friend of Marie Catherine and is being held prisoner by her husband only to later be accused of plotting his death.

What was puzzling to me was that the fairytale link was referred to throughout the novel but it was never fully explained how you ‘invent’ a fairytale or what its conventions were. I wanted to know more about Marie Catherine’s contribution to the genre and although I was engrossed in the plot, it was not what I had anticipated. That said, as I mentioned earlier, there is an exciting section at the end where fairytale images start to seep into the narrative. This leads to a powerful ending that reminds us that despite the harshness of reality for some, it is possible for others to experience a ‘happily ever after’ ending.


Amanda Rayner is the returns officer at Readings Carlton.

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