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Where the Light Falls by Allison Pataki, Owen Pataki

BOTTOM LINE: Slow to start, bloated and weighty, and poorly developed characters makes this a no-go

Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 11 July 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“Three years after the storming of the Bastille, the streets of Paris are roiling with revolution. The citizens of France are enlivened by the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. The monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette has been dismantled—with the help of the guillotine—and a new nation is rising in its place. Jean-Luc, an idealistic young lawyer, moves his wife and their infant son from a comfortable life in Marseille to Paris, in the hopes of joining the cause. André, the son of a denounced nobleman, has evaded execution by joining the new French army. Sophie, a young aristocratic widow, embarks on her own fight for independence against her powerful, vindictive uncle.

As chaos threatens to undo the progress of the Revolution and the demand for justice breeds instability and paranoia, the lives of these compatriots become inextricably linked. Jean-Luc, André, and Sophie find themselves in a world where survival seems increasingly less likely—for themselves and, indeed, for the nation.

Featuring cameos from legendary figures such as Robespierre, Louis XVI, and Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, Where the Light Falls is an epic and engrossing novel, moving from the streets and courtrooms of Paris to Napoleon’s epic march across the burning sands of Egypt. With vivid detail and imagery, the Patakis capture the hearts and minds of the citizens of France fighting for truth above all, and for their belief in a cause greater than themselves.”

My Thoughts: Six years after the official end to the American Revolution, the Parisian peasantry stormed the Bastille, the symbol of royal oppression, sparking the beginnings of the French Revolution. Three years later, the king and queen of France are in prison, held by the very subjects who once beheld them as the earthly equivalent of God. Anyone with noble blood faces persecution, prosecution, and most likely death at the hands of the people and their favorite instrument of death, the guillotine. Where the Light Falls opens at this grim juncture, a period in history that has almost no historical precedence for its violence and volatility.

The one thing Where the Light Falls does correctly, in my opinion, is show just how dangerous and confusing the Reign of Terror actually was for royalty and regular citizens alike. There is no attempt to romanticize the time period; life is miserable for virtually everyone at this time, from the lack of food to the dearth of lawfulness. Similarly, as the power shifts from Robespierre to The Directory, we see even the most humble of civilians live in fear of denouncement and a potential trip to la Guillotine. It is a chilling portrayal of this period in French history and provides a good counterpoint to those familiar with the American Revolution.

Any novel of this length suffers from weak characters, and Where the Light Falls does indeed suffer. There is a lot of attention to action and to famous characters with whom the trio interacts, but actual character development is in scarce supply. Sophie never evolves beyond the ornamental beauty of the story and the cause of most of the conflict between André and others. Jean-Luc’s idealism about the new republic follows a very predictable path of enthusiasm to concern to distrust as his career puts him courtside for the power struggle between Robespierre, his followers, and those who feel Robespierre is too lenient. André finds himself crossing paths with several real-life historical figures, all of whom have little to do with his story line outside of providing a fun diversion. There is no depth to these characters. What we know and understand about all three remains the same at the end as it does at the beginning.

There is a soap opera like quality to Where the Light Falls that diffuses the weightiness of the historical background, much to its detriment. André and Sophie’s relationship is passionate but sudden, arising almost overnight through a brief conversation at a party and evoking more than one chuckle at how melodramatic it becomes. The jealousy subplot is perfect for “Days of our Lives,” if it hasn’t already been done ten times already, complete with battle scenes and unlawful imprisonment and usurpation of power. The culminating showdown between André and his nemesis feels like it was scripted by the famous Cecil B. DeMille himself with its grandiose backdrop and Charlton Heston dialogue. Jean-Luc’s inner turmoil at his shifting sympathies towards the republic is worthy of any Erika Kane/Susan Lucci scene. While all three face danger, you never fear for their lives or worry that the various conflicts will not resolve themselves in any way but their favor.

The lack of character development and the lack of any real danger for the characters lessens the impact of the history lesson of the novel. We don’t know the characters on an intimate level and therefore never establish a connection with them. Plus, their stories are so predictable that we know that they are never in any danger. Even when it appears that André is going to be found guilty for nothing more than the family into which he was born, we know he is not going to lose his head. He is the main character, and there was way too much of the story left for one of the main characters to exit the novel forever.

As such, while the Patakis do present the French Revolution in its grim glory, we are still left wanting more. The rest of the story is a lark that just happens to occur during one of the bloodier eras in French history, and we only get to superficially experience it. There is much made of the suffering of others, the lack of food and heat, the abject poverty of a majority of the citizens of Paris, but our heroes do not experience this firsthand. They have food and money to buy wood to burn for warmth. They hobnob with the republican elite and take carriages around the city. Their lives are not reflective of the reasons behind the Revolution, and they provide us with no way to truly understand the desperation that caused the civilian population to rise up against the crown.

Where the Light Falls is a long novel that interminably drags. Without a connection to the three main characters, you are not vested in their welfare, making the story feel longer than it is. The story covers five years, and you feel each one of those years. If anything, the Patakis were a bit too ambitious in what they were trying to accomplish; the scope of what was happening in Paris, in France, and in Europe was just too big to encompass in one novel with three characters. These three characters are involved in so many key moments in French history and meet and interact with so many real historical figures that you do have to suspend disbelief to be able to power through certain scenes. I wanted to love Where the Light Falls because the French Revolution and the years before Napoleon crowns himself emperor are a fascinating period of history, but there are just too many things wrong with the characters and their subplots for me to have enjoyed it.

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