Amandine by Marlena de Blasi is an epic tale of an orphaned baby secretly sent to live in a French convent by her grandmother, the Countess. The baby is the bastard daughter of teenage Andzelika and the brother of her father’s mistress (A sordid start, to be sure). Yet the child, Amandine, is raised surrounded by love and protection by a lay guardian, Solange, and the convent’s religious occupants. However Mater Paul, who oversees the convent, cannot overcome her own jealousy over the unconditional love she witnesses, the polar opposite of her own traumatic childhood. She grows to hate Amandine and spends years neglecting and, finally, damaging her. As a result, Amandine and Solange are thrust from the convent just as the French surrender to the Nazis. They are in great peril, but also find unexpected reserves of strength and cunning as they become involved in the French Resistance. Amandine’s mother and grandmother are intertwined throughout the story, as they go on with their lives, the existence of Amandine erased from the official record, but not their minds.
De Blasi writes beautifully and deftly weaves first-person chapters from Solange, Mater Paul, The Countess and Andzelika, creating the net that supports Amandine’s tale. There is an element of Jane Eyre at work, as Amandine is treated cruelly by Mater Paul and her fellow convent school students. But De Blasi doesn’t take the easy way out with this orphan tale. Amandine is reared with love by Solange and all of the nuns and priests that surround her everyday. She is also raised to love and appreciate the natural world. De Blasi’s description of the French landscape, as well as the food, is sumptuous. The book is infused with a large dose of sadness, especially in relation to mother-daughter relationships. Amandine’s evolving feelings about her mother and the mother figures that surround her are extraordinary in their maturity and, many times, incredibly sad.
Despite the title, Amandine is really not just her story. The subplots involving the Countess, Andzelika, and Solange are fascinating and are solidly tales of women - their choices and relationships - and how their choices helped create Amandine. I enjoyed this book a lot and will have no trouble hand selling it to adult women or to my library book club.