|Young Claudette Laurent enjoys her life in 1781 Paris, where her father is a successful dollmaker. Then one night her life goes up in flames – literally. A devastating fire claims the lives of her parents and destroys the shop before Claudette can grab more than a few items. Her childhood sweetheart, Jean-Phillippe, is nowhere to be seen. Desperate, Claudette makes her way to the docks, where a man is offering passage to London for women seeking employment. Claudette climbs aboard in the company of several other women: widowed Beatrice; her small daughter, Marquerite; and brash Lizbet.
The “employment” in England turns out to be prostitution, and the women manage to escape when Lizbet recognizes what is happening. Lizbet returns to France, and Claudette and Beatrice find positions as servants in the household of a social-climbing harridan, Maude Ashby, where the other servants treat them with scorn. Claudette catches the eye of soon-to-be-married nobleman William Greycliffe, and he occupies far more of her thoughts than she would like, even as she pines for the probably-dead Jean-Phillippe.
Claudette decides to make a go of it creating dolls on her own. With the help of Beatrice and a few kindly acquaintances, The C. Laurent Fashion Doll Shop is soon the toast of London and catches the attention of Queen Marie Antoinette. Claudette is summoned to the French court at a most inopportune time, where she will face intrigue and betrayal and may even lose her life.
This romance is long on historical detail, most of it interesting. Claudette’s fashion dolls evolve from miniatures dressed in the latest fashions to life-size replicas. The events leading up to Marie Antoinette’s unfortunate end are engrossing, if a touch melodramatic at times. The queen is portrayed as a vain, rather silly woman who thinks nothing of spending enormous sums on ridiculous pastimes such as the Hameau, a faux rustic hamlet built on the grounds of Versailles, complete with milkmaids and thatched-roof cottages. By the time she realizes her subjects hate her, it’s too late, though she professes to love them deeply. At the same time, she’s a sympathetic figure, grieving the death of her infant daughter.
Claudette, of the merchant class, makes a great juxtaposition to the fripperies of Versailles. She is smart enough not to have aspirations to the nobility, and while this helps her keep the attentive William Greycliffe at arm’s length, it also feels realistic. In fact, Claudette may strike some readers as being too perfect, and there are few surprises as the plot unfolds. She’s beautiful, kind, loyal, virtuous, and hardworking. Her ultimate disillusionment at the hands of someone she trusts sets up the climax of the book, and it’s almost a relief because it’s somewhat unexpected.
The Queen’s Dollmaker offers an interesting twist on the tale of Marie Antoinette. Readers who like a strong dose of history will enjoy this one. A final note: just for kicks, look up this book on Amazon and take a gander at all the book covers in this subgenre. They’re pretty much interchangeable, with a look I’m dubbing the “Headless Heroine.” Come on, publishers, a little more creativity, please?