The Natural History of Love

Caroline Petit

The Natural History of Love
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The Natural History of Love

Caroline Petit

For fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Pip Williams' The Dictionary of Lost Words, The Natural History of Love is based upon the true story of 19th century French explorer, naturalist and diploma the Count de Castelnau and his lover Madame Fonçeca; a sweeping historical narrative set in the wilds of Brazil, salons of Paris and the early days of Melbourne’s settlement.

When Melbourne lawyer Nathan Smithson takes on the case of mad, wealthy Edward Fonçeca’s inheritance trial against his ruthless brother in 1902, he must unearth long-buried family secrets to have any chance of winning.

Brazil, 1852: François, the Count de Castelnau and French Consul to Bahia falls dangerously ill on a naturalist expedition and is delivered by a rainforest tribesman to the Fonçeca household. Carolina Fonçeca is 16 years old and longing to leave the confines of her family’s remote Brazilian sugar plantation. With a head full of Balzac and dreams of Parisian life, she is instantly beguiled by the middle-aged Frenchman. What Carolina doesn’t know is that François has a wife and son back in France. Desperate for a new life, she makes a decision that will haunt her forever.

Review

Set in the late 1800s, The Natural History of Love is based upon the true story of 19th-century French explorer and naturalist, François, the Count de Castelnau and his lover Madame Fonçeca. When Melbourne lawyer Nathan Smithson takes on the case of mad, wealthy Edward Fonçeca’s inheritance trial against his brother in 1902, he must uncover long-buried family secrets to have any chance of winning. The confidences are hidden within the diary papers of the two lovers, and it is these papers, with detailed notes from Nathan, which create this story.

To enjoy the characters, I had to keep reminding myself of this novel’s particular historical context. I did find it disturbing that the 16-year-old Carolina falls privy to the advances of 42-year-old explorer and deeply misogynistic François when he is a guest in her childhood home. Still, I have read the Wolf Hall series and truly, in comparison, this is light entertainment. It is after all, at the heart of it, a love story. During the musing of the two lovers, we come to realise how difficult it was to be an explorer and teacher with a world in constant turmoil. We also realise how much both parties had to sacrifice to create an equal (within reason of the restraints of the era) and satisfying life together. This epic novel travels far and wide, from its beginnings in Brazil, to France and then to Melbourne, Australia; dodging wars, scandal, heartbreak and uprisings along the way.

Readers of historical fiction who favour a strong lead female character will enjoy Carolina’s tenacity and the ridiculous, at times, actions of François. Reading this novel allowed me to be transported to another time and escape – oh so briefly – the global horrors we are facing now. I commend Petit for her fine act of balancing research with creativity to tell a story that is unique and kind and wonderfully entertaining.


Chris Gordon is the programming and events manager at Readings

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