The Blue: A Novel. Nancy Bilyeau. Endeavor Quill. December 2018. $3.99; pb, 430 pp.; ISBN: 9781911445626.
Genevieve Planche is the granddaughter of French Huguenots, an artist who is reduced to painting on porcelain cups although her skills pertain to being able to paint in oils, the latter talent closed to females in 1758 England. The author’s own familial background is connected to the Huguenot background of this artist. She adores the work of the famous artist, William Hogarth, and Joshua Reynolds. She lives in Spitalfields, a modest area outside of the West End of famous artists and wealthy patrons. Despite being associated in the recent past with the criminal Dennis Arsenault, Genevieve makes up a story to meet William Hogarth. Imagine her surprise when she is accosted by two men, one her ex-lover and one, Sir Gabriel Courtenay. The latter she met at a dinner earlier and then in Hogarth’s home. His interest in her seems awkward but determined. Their earlier conversation was about the history of different types of porcelain, including the famous Sevres porcelain. The contact immediately becomes dangerous!
Two items dominate this complex, ever-changing plot. One is the past French massacre of Genevieve’s fellow Huguenots at what is known as St. Bartholomew Massacre and the other is the exploratory search for a brand new color of blue. The reader is at first unsure whether this is blue as we know it, a type of Prussian blue or some other shade of blue. Either way, the machinations spun by Courtenay make Genevieve realize it’s a secret that results in plenty of injured and dead people who get too close to this affair.
Thomas Sturbridge is the brilliant scientist who is said to rival the talent of Isaac Newton. Before she meets him, she is invited, through her grandfather’s artistic influence, to paint porcelain at Derby Porcelain Works. It is quite unclear who is a trustworthy part of this exploration into the new color being sought. Even Thomas, with whom Genevieve falls in love, is partially secretive and purely passionate about his scientific experiments. Genevieve is threatened, beaten at one point and imprisoned because of their love. She is the only one who can get Thomas to continue his work and yet he seems to know something that he has not revealed to Genevieve.
Words cannot convey the passion, talents, criminal intent and plans to make this discovery real. The characters move between England and France, who by the way are also currently at war, at a breakneck pace. One is never sure of who is sincere and who is a criminal. The conclusion is mind-blowing in its surprises. Royalty is more involved in this plot than earlier realized. The author has obviously researched her subject with precision and depth and knows how to hold the reader’s fascination with plot and character manipulations. More than that, the author also has a deep, passionate love for the world of porcelain and art, as well as the Huguenot people.
This is magnificent historical fiction that’s a must read and a great gift for those who love the genres of historical fiction and mysteries! Congratulations, Nancy Bilyeau, for a book that will be read, re-read and talked about for some time to come!