Gilbert Lafayette, a Frenchman who championed American independence and fought in the American Revolution, was born in Château de Chavaniac (Chateau Lafayette), and the castle is a symbol of heroism and freedom. In The Women of Chateau Lafayette, Stephanie Dray rightfully claims this legacy for a series of remarkable women associated with the chateau.
In April 1774, Adrienne Lafayette, a young Frenchwoman of noble birth, marries Gilbert at her family’s behest, but true love develops between them as they advocate not just for American independence but for more freedom from France—perhaps even the elimination of royal titles! Extremists on both sides attack the family, and Adrienne must decide how to protect herself and her family while staying true to the ideals she holds dear.
Almost 150 years later, sculptor Beatrice Chanler, visiting her wounded husband Willy in a French hospital, sees the devastation of World War I firsthand, and is outraged at President Wilson’s policy of “too proud to fight” strict neutrality. She conceives of the French Heroes Lafayette Memorial Fund and starts sending Lafayette kits to soldiers in the trenches while advocating for American entrance into the war. [The Memorial Fund was headquartered at Chateau Lafayette and housed an orphanage, school, and preventorium (for tuberculosis patients).]
One of the orphans given at home at Chateau Lafayette was Marthe Simone, now a teacher at the school (and the only completely imagined character). Although disgusted by the actions of the Vichy government, she resolves to keep her distance—until events close to home force her to take a stand and put herself in the line of fire.
Stephanie Dray’s passion for the story and commitment to research is evident in every page of the novel. All of the women—though very different in personality and circumstance—displayed determination, bravery, and intelligence. Adrienne, even when it would have been easier and safer to capitulate to authority, held to her ideals. Beatrice, constantly reinventing herself, was so sassy and irreverent. (Google her—she was absolutely stunning!) While Marthe begins the novel with a selfish attitude, she develops a moral awareness that leads her to self-sacrifice.
Although I learned the most about history from Adrienne’s story, and certainly admired her, I enjoyed the more contemporary stories more. In the buddy read, though, many found Adrienne’s most compelling or liked them all equally. One note I didn’t like was a subplot about Marthe’s sexuality. It might be true to the times, but felt unsatisfying to me and I would have preferred it be omitted altogether.
This powerful novel profiles three amazing women and celebrates independence and self-determination as it connects three disparate yet connected time periods. This will be a must for historical fiction lovers.
In 1825, President Monroe invited Gilbert Lafayette to tour the United States in part for the fiftieth anniversary of the country and in part to inspire Americans with the “Spirit of 1776.” One of his stops was Geneva, NY’s public square, now Pulteney Park. I decided to take pictures of the book there, at a place where Lafayette himself once stood.