Monday, November 5, 2012

Book Review - The Ruins of Lace
by Iris Anthony

Lace is a thing like hope.
It is beauty; it is grace.
It was never meant to destroy so many lives.

The mad passion for forbidden lace has infiltrated France, pulling soldier and courtier alike into its web. For those who want the best, Flemish lace is the only choice, an exquisite perfection of thread and air. For those who want something they don’t have, Flemish lace can buy almost anything—or anyone.

For Lisette, lace begins her downfall, and the only way to atone for her sins is to outwit the noble who now demands the impossible. To fail means certain destruction. But for Katharina, lace is her salvation. It is who she is; it is what she does. If she cannot make this stunning tempest of threads, a dreaded fate awaits.

The most lucrative contraband in Europe, with its intricate patterns and ephemeral hope, threatens to cost them everything. Lace may be the deliverance for which they all pray…or it may bring the ruin and imprisonment they all fear.

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Before taking on The Ruins of Lace as a book to review, I knew next to nothing about the lace industry in the 17th Century.  The premise of Iris Anthony’s novel sounded intriguing, and I assumed that it would afford me an opportunity to learn a thing or two about that period.

Anthony has not only given me an interesting history lesson, but she has crafted an immensely enjoyable novel, one that I could not read fast enough. Within her 35 chapters, seven points of view are given five chapters each, all in a repeating sequence.  I present the diverse cast of characters:
  1. Katharina Martens – Lace Maker
  2. Heilwich Martens – Katharina’s Sister
  3. Denis Boulanger – Soldier and Border Guard
  4. Moncher – Lace-Smuggling Dog
  5. Lisette Lefort – Viscount of Souboscq's Daughter
  6. Count of Montreau – Marquis of Eronville's Son
  7. Alexandre Lefort – Distant Cousin of Lisette
All of these characters are connected, some in very immediate ways, others more distant.  They all hold their own points of view on lace and it’s impact on their lives. For Katharina, she must make lace or be forced into a life of destitution. Her sister Heilwich works for years, trying to free her sister. Denis is a less-than-successful border guard, struggling to prove himself in his work, but finding no smuggled lace. Moncher the dog is one of thousands of his kind, smuggling lace across the border of France, having the greatest desire to just be with his kind master. Lisette unwittingly gets her family entangled with the likes of the villainous Count of Montreau, a man who is cruel in his pursuit of lace. Finally, Alexandre Lefort is the humble cousin of Lisette, who will do almost anything for her love and to free her family from the clutches of the vile Count.

This seven-chapter pattern that Iris Anthony has woven was incredibly compelling.  Each character had so many relatable yearnings, even the warped Julien, the Count of Montreau. All desired love and acceptance in some way, and all sought freedom in one manner or another. Each faced moments of truth when a “yes” or “no” decision had to be made,  and frequently it was the choice between two evils. At the end of each chapter, I eagerly awaited the return of that character, seven chapters later. This led to that “just one more” mindset that all readers love, when we find ourselves reading much more than we had intended, simply because we had to get through just one more chapter.

The Ruins of Lace was a quick read, not only because of the compelling nature of the seven-chapter cycling, but Iris Anthony’s writing was very accessible. She is able to transport her readers to the 17th Century, but she kept a slightly modern tone in her style. It certainly wouldn’t be considered a light read for the beach, but one could easily dive in and complete the book in just a few sittings.

For my conservative readership, I must alert you to Julien, the Count of Montreau’s character. While Anthony doesn’t get overly graphic in her portrayal of this disturbed man, be aware that he is struggling with gender identity issues. He has been traumatized many times throughout his life, so his angst is understandable, but the nature of his proclivities may be a concern to some. That being said, I’m sure his struggles are more common than most of us realize, and this doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the novel.

Chantilly Lace
In today’s world of near-instant gratification with e-commerce and digital media, it’s hard for us to comprehend the value of something as common as a piece of lace. We now have computerized machines that can weave this fabric for us, and we can order it instantly online. Yet in the 17th Century, this was hardly the case. This delicate frippery was highly valued, and this impacted society in a myriad of ways. Iris Anthony’s The Ruins of Lace investigates this in not only an educational way, but in an entertaining one as well. I encourage you to explore this compelling novel, and I highly advise you to clear your schedule when you do. If our experiences are similar, you’ll have a hard time putting this one down.

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Want to learn more?
Here are some resources from The Ruins of Lace:

Author Iris Anthony Discusses The Ruins of Lace

Print Edition

Kindle Edition



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