Some books simply take you there. The minute you start reading, you’re not reading the story—you’re living it. And Fraternité, by Margaret Pritchard Houston, is exactly like that. Through several characters whose loves, griefs, and aspirations come alive before and within you, you are transported to Paris in 1848 and find yourself breathlessly experiencing the beginnings of the revolution that essentially brought to completion the earlier French Revolution of 1789-99 once and for all.
Sebastian Duval, the main character, doesn’t sense how momentous those beginnings are at first. While it’s true that he has been sent by the police to infiltrate the district of Saint-Antoine and report on any anti-government rumblings there, he gets more caught up in investigating the murder of a prostitute who has been one of his primary informants. But before long, his discoveries begin to alarm Allard, his superior officer, who recognizes their dangerous implications for the restored monarchy well before Sebastian does.
Sebastian, meanwhile, still struggling with the deep grief from losing his child two years ago, which has led to a partial estrangement from his wife Marie, finds that he must call upon the aid of an old friend and fellow undercover agent, Gilbert Montserrat, who was also deeply involved in that earlier loss. Soon these three—Sebastian, Marie, and Gilbert—gradually uncover the mystery behind the prostitute’s murder and her connection to secrets that could threaten the very future of France. And throughout his investigations, Sebastian finds himself emotionally torn: torn between duty and friendship, torn between guilt and desire, and torn between loves. As the final revolution gathers momentum and becomes inevitable, Sebastian works frantically to salvage and protect whoever he can and survive to fashion a new future with a deeper understanding of his own heart and the new world that his struggles have helped to create.
When it comes to this history, Ms. Pritchard Houston really knows her stuff. Between her knowledge of the underpinnings of the revolution and her extensive research into the layout of Paris and the living conditions of its downtrodden citizenry, she makes you feel as though you are right there in the midst of things as they happen. Yet it’s not just a matter of knowing the facts; those alone could be dry as dust. It takes great insight into the human character, a delicate and precise level of control and plotting, and, quite simply, terrific writing skills to bring characters and the events in their lives so vividly alive. Ms. Houston has all of that, in spades.
I really loved this book and read huge swaths without being able to put it down. I highly recommend it, both for the fascinating history it chronicles and for the poignantly real story of some of the people who lived that history.