From the desk of Rachel McMillan:
I first discovered Molly Greeley’s forthcoming novel Marvelous in a Publisher’s Lunch deal memo. Knowing Greeley was a fan-favourite after her two deliciously engaging re-imaginings of Jane Austen’s world (The Clergyman’s Wife, and The Heiress) I would read anything she wrote. The true story behind the couple from the “tale as old as time” that may have inspired the Beauty and The Beast fairy tale was my favourite trope-y catnip.
The Man of the Woods
“Court life has softened him; being around so many people who are accustomed to the presence of human marvels has made him forgetful. He braces himself for stones, cupping his hand around the back of Madeleine’s head, though she bucks and struggles against him.”
Pedro Gonsalvus lived in France in 1547. Long robbed of his name and his freedom, he is subject to ridicule merely because of the disease that covers his body in hair: a condition now recognized as hypertrichosis. Memorialized by Ulisse Aldrovandi as the man of the woods, he is a popular subject of painting and legend and recalls other historical and literary outcasts such as Quasimodo, The Phantom of The Opera and The Elephant Man.
Gonsalvus was taken in by the French court of Henry II as a slave and prisoner and exhibited as a cruel sideshow attraction. But once it is revealed that this “ape child” and medical marvel had a mind finely attuned for Greek, Latin and other Classics, and a keen aptitude for refined manner, he is provided a Court education and life beyond the scraps tossed at him and a bed. He is given an experience beyond his caged early life, though is still christened Monsieur Sauvage by the vast majority who fail to understand him.
Sold to Amuse a Queen’s Whim
“Her majesty is a woman—just a woman. A woman whose desire for little hairy children saved Catherine from the nunnery-or worse. Whose desire led Catherine to Petrus, to Madeleine.”
Catherine d’Aubert has enjoyed a comfortable life and promise of a dowry given her father’s respectable merchant trade. She even catches the eye of a handsome local young man and her own happiness seems firmly in reach until a shipwreck sinks the family fortune and her widowed father is forced to sell her off on one of Catherine de’ Medici’s whims: to pair a beautiful young woman of court to the beastly Gonsalvus in hopes their union will breed exotic children perfect for court exhibition.
Through birth and death, war and loss, Pedro and Catherine’s love story is as timeless as the Beauty and the Beast fairy-tale even as their own agency is limited by those who would continue to put them on constant display.
A Golden Age of Discovery
“The constellations tell different stories than those of his tutors.”
Set during the Age of Enlightenment and its friction against the limitations of human judgment it marries well into Pedro and Catherine’s story. They lived in a Golden Age of science, discovery and even astronomy (wonderfully emblemized in Pedro’s affinity for studying the universe around him), and yet were subject to the prejudices of their time and the preconceived notion that anything different was dangerous.
Greeley’s astounding talent is elevated here by compassion wonderfully realized in Pedro’s pursuit of any glimpse of human connection. A shared kiss with an unexpected ally begins as a small fire that of course manifests tenfold when, by unusual means, he is promised a wife and family. And Pedro never ever forgets his passion for discovery, more accessible when he is embraced by court life.
A New Patron to Exhibit and Exploit Them
Indeed, so much of Catherine and Pedro’s life is existence is one of exhibition. Even when they find shelter upon the dissolution of their monarch supporters, it is in the lavish but exhibitive garden of the affluent Duke of Parma, their new patron, who capitalizes on his famous live-in guests and even sells off the most exotic of their children. The more they belong to other people, through love and loss, the stronger Pedro and Catherine’s relationship becomes. The wealthy and elite become more enamoured with owning some of their unusual family, so when Catherine bears some children not afflicted with her husband’s ailment, she steps into the role of the other. It is him who is the marvel presenting an interesting role reversal and a further nuanced look at the dichotomy of love and attraction.
A Talent Set Full Ablaze
There are some reading experiences that shine because you know that the author enjoyed and loved living in their book’s world. This is one such case. Where Greeley’s talent was ignited in her Austenesque novels, it is set to full blaze here. In Pedro and Catherine’s world, any opportunity to carve out a space in history is as essential to our understanding of their lives and to their living in them.
I was especially captivated by how Greeley’s pen so perfectly molds the cadence and theme she is going for. Told like a fable, this is a treatise on real love. Not the love conjured by the swell of a Disney Soundtrack or a perfect yellow ballgown finessed with CGI aplomb. This is a love determined by a royal decree, discovered by proximity and determination, and flourished in friendship. Pedro and Catherine grow into their love and forge a bond far stronger thanks to their tenacity and circumstance.
The Intersection of Fantasy and Real Life
Marvelous is one of the most perfectly told works of historical fiction I have ever read. It reminded me why we love story and why we love romance. After all, if taken as an imagination of the source material that has launched a thousand trope-y Beauty and the Beast ships, then it exists at the intersection of fantasy and real life. This is the fairy-tale of humanity sparked with laughter and pathos, grief and birth and death. At the end of the film Ever After, the narrative frame surrounding an old painting of a woman said to have sparked a Cinderella-type fable posits that it is not because the central couple lived happily ever after that is the lesson of their tale. Rather, that they lived.
A Sheer Joy
Marvelous is singular, simmering read best savoured with its slow embroidery of each sentence to create a tapestry wonderfully painted and painstakingly met with love. Every stitch creates a strong verisimilitude from the scientific and religious leanings to the food and clothing of the time. It opens a portal to exploration and further reading of a remarkable couple leaving an indelible stamp on the romance genre, one of the most magnificent outcomes of this publication. The fact that it is a sheer joy to fall into and a heart-squeezing romance is the icing on the proverbial cake. If you read one romance in 2023, I highly recommend you make Marvelous your choice.
5 out of 5 Stars
GUEST REVIEWER BIO
Rachel McMillan is the author of The Herringford and Watts mysteries, The Van Buren and DeLuca mysteries, The Three Quarter Time series, The London Restoration and The Mozart Code. Her 2023 releases include Operation Scarlet and The Castle Keepers. She has also written two works of non-fiction: Dream Plan Go: A Travel Guide for Independent Adventure and A Very Merry Holiday Movie Guide. Rachel lives in Toronto, Canada and is always reading. Visit Rachel online at Rachel McMillan.com.
- “Enchanting. Molly Greeley has pulled off a piece of magic, traversing the 16th-century courts of Paris and Rome to tell a dazzling love story about the outcast’s ache to be cared for and belong. This book broke my heart and put it back together again.”— Allison Epstein, author of A Tip for the Hangman
- “One of the most moving novels I’ve read in years, Marvelous is an extraordinary portrait of the extraordinary marriage that inspired ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Rich in compassion, wonder, and intimacy, Molly Greeley’s latest will break your heart open in the best possible way, proof that the best fairy tales are woven from the mysteries of human experience. Simply superb.”— Kris Waldherr, author of Unnatural Creatures and The Lost History of Dreams
- Marvelous: A Novel, by Molly Greeley
- William Morrow (February 28, 2023)
- Hardcover, eBook, & audiobook (416) pages
- ISBN: 978-0063244092
- Genre: Historical Fiction, Historical Romance, Gothic Fiction
We received a review copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Austenprose is an Amazon affiliate. Cover image courtesy of William Morrow © 2022; text Rachel McMillan © 2022, austenprose.com.