177 of 189 people found the following review helpful
on June 30, 1998
Mantel's very absorbing novel is good for two reasons. First, it evokes an excellent sense of time, of place, and of events, during the French Revolution. Possibly more than any historical work about the events of the Revolution, this novel captures the true zeitgeist of the times. Second, and closely linked to the first reason, is the author's vivid depiction of three characters - Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins - as living, breathing, sinning creatures. Above all is the author's suggestion of the randomness of events, what we now proclaim History. Revolutions produce upheaval: they displace, promote or overthrow people. And as in life, the author ultimately suggests, we all seek that one thing: a place of greater safety. This book verges on an imperfect brilliance.
166 of 180 people found the following review helpful
on June 4, 2004
I have just finished this book, so I am not yet able to criticize it successfully from any angle. If there is any qualification to make, it is that you need to devote a good week to it, about four days to read, and three to get back to a person your friends will recognize.
After seven years of English and Journalism classes, I am not sure why Mantel's name did not come up once. There is nothing extraneous here, nothing fantastic to the point of unbelievability. The characters mature and change and determine and repel each other. No one is a saint nor, with one minor exception, do they deserve their sentences. In her Camille Desmoulins -for the majority of the novel, at least- there is a great literary archetype of exuberant, young egotism. At first, we blame him for nothing, then everything. At the last, he looks disturbingly like his reader.
Danton, by the same turn, starts out in much the vein of Stanislawa Przybyszewka's Georges-Jacques, the big lug. He gets away with things that you wonder if you'd forgive exuberant genius for, which- of course- you would. He is admirable as one true to his own interests if nothing else. Then, in one of the most skilled revelations in the literature I've read, his true, unwavering dedication to the principle behind the whole big mess he has helped create is fully uncovered, and too late. There are plenty of places to cry big, philosophical tears in this book.
There are plenty of places to laugh, too. Those familiar with Mantel's other works will recognize here her ongoing jabs at, well, pretty much everybody, but feminist representative Nicolas Condorcet here in particular for his jealousy of Robespierre over the female attention he felt should rightfully have been his. She gives her tragedy the sense of ridiculous humor it deserves. Even at its most productive, the guillotine traveled around more ubiquitously as an earring than on wheels.
Robespierre, somewhat suprisingly, comes across as an almost secondary character. In the end, though, it is him behind the narrative. His influence is why we forgive Saint-Just and Babette Duplay. While she is the product of her family's almost cult-like reverence for "the god upstairs", Saint-Just's hard line violent rhetoric is a logical echo and heir to Desmoulins and Danton's early encouragements of insurrection. Saint-Just appears late, and this follows the arc of the novel perfectly. Everything here, including Mantel's own use of language, artfully turns about in the last hundred pages and bites the hand that has been feeding it. (To stray from more familiar apocrypha.)
Mantel's book falls somewhere between "A Tale of Two Cities" and "War and Peace" as a literary accomplishment (as well as in weight.) This is an excellent novel.
96 of 103 people found the following review helpful
on August 22, 2000
This is quite likely ther greatest historical fiction ever written about the French Revolution.
It follows the careers of three of the revolution's architects - Georges Danton, who wants to be rich and famous; Camille Desmoulins, who wants just once in his life to make his father proud of him; and sensitive Robespierre, Camille's school friend who believes there's something wrong with the system but isn't out for blood.
Camille is center stage at the storming of the Bastille - a stage he will never quite again regain. Danton becomes involved in the political aftermath, and they drag Robespierre kicking and screaming into the bloodbath that follows.
Eventually Danton is softened by the death of his long-suffering wife and Camille is horrified when friends start to go to the guillotine. Robespierre, however, has indeed become the fanatic they wanted to make him. They realize he must be stopped - but with Danton involved in government corruption and Camille seen weeping publicly for a condemned prisoner and emotionally torn between his two friends, it may be too late...
The storytelling here is masterful, sympathies wavering from one of the trio to another - an amazing feat considering that the "Citizens" have to be among history's great mass murderers. The book is long, but nothing really could have been left out - the Revolution was this epic in scope. Other historical figures weave in and out of the narrative - an initially stupid and vain but ultimately moving Marie Antoinette; briefly but memorably a harried Lafayette who realizes they are at the brink of something far more horrible than the Revolution's older sister in America but can't change the tide of history by himself; and many others - above all a frightening Marat.
Mantel purposely kept Marat a supporting character because he was a bit older than the main characters and thus his story is a bit different than theirs. She hopes to write his story eventually, and I can hardly wait to see the results.
40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2006
This novel is a benchmark in historical fiction---comparisons others have made here to Dickens and Tolstoy are not hyperbole. This is a stunning intellectual achievement in its depth of characterization and sheer narrative verve...and, to steal from one of the reviews on the paperback's back cover, all brought off with "Mantel's customary black sparkle."
There is a knowingness in this book about human nature which makes nearly everything else I've read lately taste of cardboard. Historicity aside---and it is very good history, if psychohistory of the Shakespearean stripe---the dialogue is so theatrically sharp, you wonder why no one has tried to film this. Short answer: it's probably [and thankfully] unfilmable.
There are gems [often drawn from sheer dint of research] any writer would be thrilled to have composed: the schoolboy Robespierre reciting a rote speech to Louis XV's closed carriage in the rain; the midnight meeting between Desmoulins and the Duc d'Orleans; Danton's slow circling of Lucile Desmoulins; the madness of the show trials, with the tumbrils already ordered, awaiting the walking dead.
Writers who look their art square in the eye know that they are called to write masterpieces: nothing else matters.
This, simply, is one. It will go down as one of the great fictional accomplishments of the 20th century.
And while you're at it, read Mantel's autobiography. It's terrifyingly real too: you'll understand where her eerily precise eye for human behaviour first saw practice.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Ms. Mantel has been in the press quite a bit lately thanks to the critical success of her latest, Wolf Hall: A Novel. Almost every review I've read mentions the unusual writing style she uses, so when I received this book for Christmas, I was curious. Her style is different, though not difficult as I had feared. She jumps around to different tenses and points of view; from omniscient to third to first, some scenes are in the present tense, some feature a character addressing the reader, some are written as screenplay with stage directions...it sounds like a big mess, but oddly enough, it works in this context and seems to enhance rather than detract from the story. To me, the style seemed to mirror and reinforce the frenetic, tumultuous and paranoid culture that was the French Revolution.
The story focuses on three of the most recognizable and controversial participants of the Revolution, beginning with childhood and following each of them through education and early careers to the point where they come together to help shape the beginnings of the Revolution.
It took me a week to get around to writing my review for this novel because I needed some time to digest it and decide how I wanted to rate it. There's no question this is an extremely well-written book, meticulously researched and peppered with excerpts from newspapers, diaries and letters; full of zippy, witty dialogue and poetic narrative. The scope of the book is huge but the author does a great job of bringing it into focus. It was a slow read for me because it is a dense book, each page packed with words and each word not to be missed for fear of misunderstanding, but I really enjoyed it, though I was rather depressed afterwards. It left me feeling a bit resentful towards the population of France during the Revolution, and with a sense of mourning for humanity's loss. It's not the type of book I could read over and over again.
The French Revolution was far different from its American counterpart. The French people were not united against one common foe, but divided into violent factions, each opposing a different foe and always opposing each other. Add to that the fact that the rest of the European powers decided it was a great time to take advantage of a weakened France and invade and you've got a recipe for a time of terror and confusion, where virtually the entire ruling class was executed along with many of the brightest and most capable minds of the time, and where there was, in fact, no place of greater safety.
17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2005
I've been obsessed with the French Revolution for a long time, and I've never seen anything that does it the justice Mantel does. For one thing, her research is impeccable. It's amazing the amount of reading she did to prepare this book; so many of the details she includes are from obscure memoirs that she must have spent years preparing.
Amazingly, she combines all her erudition to make a book that shows so much empathy for her famous main characters-Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins-and is so entertaining that you hardly feel you're reading a work of real history, although I would say it is, despite being called a novel. Obviously there is poetic license taken, but overall it is astoundingly insightful to the nuances, mores, personalities of the times. This is a book that truly understands the eighteenth-century mentality, the passion and torments unleashed by the Revolution, and the fact that it was a very scary time to live in indeed.
I especially want to thank Mantel for giving the much reviled Robespierre some real humanity. Yes, he made some pretty big mistakes-but he is a sympathetic figure, and Mantel skillfully demonstrates this. Perhaps more than any other figure of the Revolution he deserves contextualization-a man of his times, he was subject to its glories and its constraints. Deeply idealistic yet deeply flawed, he is best understood as deluded rather than evil.
But more importantly...I love this book! It does read like a novel even if it is history, and even if you know or care nothing for the Revolution you will want to know the fates of these fully developed characters.
94 of 115 people found the following review helpful
on April 27, 2006
I fear I must disagree with those readers who have given this one a thunderous ovation. What time in history could be more fascinating, full of action and suspense than the French Revolution? With this riveting background, how could this book fail to captivate and engross? Mantel shows us how. Getting through this overblown tome was an exercise in discipline and tedium. I kept waiting to be caught up in the action, but never was. Despite being populated by the proverbial cast of thousands, none of them seemed particularly interesting. These are the pivotal figures in a great historical movement, yet I found them lackluster, irksome and confusing in temperament. Most of the peak moments of the Revolution take place "off camera," as it were. We get one paragraph about the executions of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, the murder of Marat, and the storming of the Bastille. What was surely a fascinating and fast-moving time in history is bogged down here by endless colloquy between the principals. After 800 pages of listening to them blab, I still did not get much of a feel for who they were and what motivated them. Could these men have been as cynical, self-serving and puerile as they appear? Camille Desmoulins comes off as an obnoxious adolescent; all I felt I knew about Danton pertained to his scarred face and sexual appetites; and Robespierre - who must have been a powerful and charismatic person - seems no better than a bore and a prig. How could individuals such as these have galvanized the nation into a total overthrow of an ancient regime? This book would have been greatly improved by some incisive editing, for starters. I consider myself an educated and fairly savvy reader, but this one left me cold. Perhaps better suited to those who are already well-informed about the French Revolution than for those who are reading to be enlightened.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2010
Rating books, like giving Academy Awards, can never really be an objective process. I'm actually rating Hilary Mantel here within a range based on her ability, as I perceive it, rather than rating this book "among all books," because I read a lot and I would end up giving Mantel all 5 stars because she's a great writer and there are so few really great writers. Mantel's style, which is very idiosyncratic, worked much better to the purpose in Wolf Hall than it did in A Place of Greater Safety, in my opinion, because 1) WH concerns fewer people, so it wasn't diluted and confused with so many characters but focused mostly on Cromwell, 2) the period discussed in WH is more given to social and ideological analysis, while APOGS illumines the French Revolution which in our imagination is a time of action. There is very little action, or even high "color," in APOGS and that absence was really felt, and 3) a huge element in Mantel's style is her ironic and playful sense of humor, which for me worked in WH but not so much in APOGS: even though very little of the bloody mayhem of the Revolution was depicted in the book, we all know it occurred, even from reading a brief history or A Tale of Two Cities. Presenting the characters through a lot of light hearted humor and witty chat while imagining the guillotine working overtime didn't work as well for me. The tone didn't depict the threatening atmosphere that must have prevailed. For these reasons, I never really was drawn into APOGS the way I was with WH: it didn't have the dramatic, emotional or philosophical strength.
Speaking of A Tale of Two Cities (which I just re-read), another reviewer here felt that Mantel's style lay somewhere between that of Dickens and Tolstoy. I can see that viewpoint but decided that, for me, her style is strangely more like Shakespeare's. Not in the power or poetry of the language of course, but in the use of dialogue, humor, representation of all social levels, historical background and a wonderful immediacy and modernity to the speech. Many people are bothered by Mantel's too contemporary, slangish use of language, but I think it can work if done well and Mr. Shakespeare did too, a man known for juxtaposing the sublime with the ridiculous within one scene and taking many liberties with history for dramatic effect.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
I could say that I've spent the last week of my life immersing myself in the minutiae of the French Revolution, but this would miss the mark, widely, of my experience of reading this book. I could say, more accurately, that I've been reading about three bright, young scholarship lads (Camille Desmoulins, Maximillian Robespierre and Georges Danton) who, after graduation, became lawyers - being hardly fit for the priesthood - and somehow managed to overthrow the powers that be in one of the most powerful states of Europe before the demos devoured them, but, while this might skim the target, it would be nowhere near the centre. For what I have been reading - as it came across to me whilst reading and, even more strongly, upon reflection afterwards - pace to the other reviewers whose experiences were quite different - was an homage to Camille Desmoulins, a character with whom most general readers will be unfamiliar, but whose alluring portrait graces the cover of my copy.
Camille is the spirit of the times incarnate. He is the androgynous cynosure of both men and women alike. He somehow IS youth; he defines the term enfant terrible, and, above all, he is brilliant and - lovely French term - sans souci. Also, as it happens, he is the one to whom all the major players here attribute the start of the revolution.
By the end of the book, one knows how he walks, talks, flicks his hair and would probably respond to any given remark. But, above all, there is his high-strung brio. His - despite all the rumours - faithful wife, Lucile, whom he married initially to carry on an affair with her mother, tells Danton at one point rather late in the game, "But for myself - I think possibly when I first saw Camille, I was twelve then, twelve or thirteen - I thought, oh, here comes hell."
And hell, of course, arrives soon enough. But Camille has been expecting this all along. He has none of the asceticism of Robespierre or demagoguery of Danton. Whilst mobs are rioting in the streets of Paris, he is occupying himself with - among other less reputable pastimes - learning Hebrew and Sanskrit and, though an atheist, writing a book on the Church fathers.
The book gives rise to other questions, of course, and makes a bang-up case, I should say, that if you're going to have a revolution or maintain any sort of representative democracy, you best have a slew of educated lawyers about who adhere to the rule of law, whatever their other deficiencies. Mob rule is NOT a pretty sight. Also, as a narrative, the book could use a bit of trimming and copy-editing, quotation marks are thrown about so randomly that it's very often difficult to tell whether a character is merely thinking something or actually uttering it. As for evaluating it, in general terms, as a fictive historical narrative, I can only repeat the judgement of another reviewer: Somewhere between A Tale of Two Cities and War and Peace, though, really, the narrative style is far from either of these books.
In the end, though, I always come back to Camille, from whom the book takes its title:
"Oh yes - we can offer you an escort, Citizen Deputy, to a place of greater safety?"
"The grave." Camille said. "The grave."
But, for most of the book, a smile crosses one's lips when this insouciant young lawyer enters the narrative to play merry hell with everything and, of course, one is reminded of Wordsworth's lines from his poem on the French Revolution:
"Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very Heaven."
And about the entire trio, but especially Camille, Yeats' line in memory of Major Robert Gregory:
"What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?"
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 2, 2012
Brilliant but very unusual. Certainly not traditional historical fiction, I found it to be more of a psychological examination of what violent events bring regular people too as told through their conversations with each other. As with real people in real life, the conversation is not always witty but as presented by Mantel it is always important. Viewing the French Revolution and particularly the Terror through this lens was terrifying and will be with me for a very long time.
I find that I disagree with those who have spoken about how vividly Mantel portrays the times and events of the French Revolution. She offers almost no descriptions of either the scenes or the events of the French Revolution. We don't see the sans coulottes charging into the Bastille or Louis XVI going the guillotine. We have no idea what Danton's house looked like (other than a chaise lounge) or how he was strapped to a board to be placed in the guillotine. The story told by Mantel could be in 20th century Bejing during the Cultural Revolution or 21st Century Cairo during the Arab Summer. It is the story of how these men were changed by these events and how they presented those changes to those around them. Mantel presents this brilliantly largely through Danton's, Desmoulins', and Robespierre's own words. It should thus not be a surprise that these three disappoint us in the end by not being heros.
This is not an easy read and will clearly disappoint those that are looking for an adventure story along the lines of Sharon Kay Penman. But for those that enjoy putting the effort into thinking about the implication of words and how events mold people, this is a great book.