Nancy Bilyeau’s fourth novel, The Blue, is a historical thriller with a titillating dollop of romantic suspense. Bilyeau's previous books include the historical trilogy The Tapestry, (an Oprah Pick), The Chalice, and The Crown. The trilogy was published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and featured Joanna Stafford, a displaced young nun in Henry VIII’s England.
The Blue is narrated in first person, present tense, by Genevieve Planché, an English-born descendant of Huguenot refugees, those French Protestant-Calvinists who fled Catholic France and ended up in England.
Bilyeau drew on her own Huguenot background for the story. In 1661, Nancy's ancestor, Pierre Billiou, emigrated from France to what was then New Amsterdam when he and his family sailed on the St. Jean de Baptiste to escape persecution for their Protestant beliefs. Pierre built the first stone house on Staten Island and is considered the borough's founder. His little white house is on the national register of historic homes and is still standing to this day.
It was fascinating to read about the Huguenots from this perspective; before this, my only acquaintance with them had been from watching the Huguenot section in D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. But Bilyou connects the persecution of the Huguenots with the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. (If you are a fan of Outlander and you read all the books, try The Blue. You’ll be glad you did.)
The term refugee as we know it was first applied to the Huguenots who fled France. Google has graphs of the density of use of certain words. The graph for refugee starts with a few slim uses in the 18th century and slowly climbs in importance. By 2010, the year the graph ends, it was near the top of the chart. Just one of the many ways that Bilyeau smoothly and seamlessly creates a set of characters that somehow manage to survive a compelling plot (this reader stayed up to the point of collapse two nights in a row in order to finish the book) and yet get us to reflect on the cultural tensions we live in today.
Because with the refugee comes exile. With artistic vocation, the necessity to produce artistic work that can sell. With a religious conscience, the struggle with temptation. With desire, passion and ambition, the need for dissimulation, discretion, and compromise.
Let’s start with Genevieve. A woman artist who can’t even apprentice herself to a seasoned artist. There is just no approved way for her to learn. A dashing aristocratic spy sucks her in to his web of intrigue with the promise that she will be able to pursue the life of artistic creation she longs for. Thus begins an edge-of-the seat narrative in which Genevieve’s religious beliefs — and the ethical code she has derived from her religion — are put repeatedly to the test.
No less artistic is the mysterious Thomas Sturbridge, an artist who’s art manifests itself through chemicals. Like the dashing spy, Sturbridge just wants the space and resources he needs to create. He shares an obsession for the color blue with many other characters in the novel, including two kings. But not just any blue: the blue, a transcendent blue, a blue that makes the viewer weep and think of heaven and repent their sins. Here is a bit of his pragmatic philosophy, a philosophy that refuses to see the world as divided into two camps:
That doesn’t enter into it at all.” He sets me down in the one chair in the garden and then kneels at my feet, his elbows on my knees and hands clasped, as if he were praying. “I dream of a world beyond nations and their brutal wars over faraway lands, their insane thirst for conquest. I have no respect for Louis XV. Nor do I respect George II. To me, they are all the same. Our society is rotted; man is without liberty. It’s as Rousseau said, ‘The fruits of the earth belong to everyone.’ Science is the only master I can ever have.”
“They seek to use you, Thomas, for their benefit. They’re working to own you — body and soul by use of your ideals.”
“What a lofty-minded, benevolent, foolish sort of man you think me,” he says, smiling fleetingly. “I hate to disabuse you, Genevieve. But you don’t perceive that it is I who am using them?”
I shake my head. “You can’t. They have all the power. It’s wrong — you can’t imagine how much I agree with you that this is wrong, a rotted system. But do not underestimate them.”
His dark-auburn eyebrow arches. “I don’t, not for a single second.”
I take his face in my hands.
The Blue (Kindle Locations 5843-5853). Endeavour Quill. Kindle Edition.
In spite of his easy-going nature, his pragmatism, his genius and his physical beauty, or perhaps become of those things, Thomas Sturbridge, the tragic chemist. and Genevieve find themselves at the center of knottier and knottier web of intrigues and betrayals.
The catalyst for all this backstabbing (sometimes literal!) and cloak-and-dagger escapes is porcelain, that most seductive of commodities — at least to the 18th century eye. Bilyeau manages to reach across time and make the reader feel our ancestor’s lust for the smooth, white product of mud and fire and the colors and images it is decorated with. (Now I regret hurrying past porcelain displays in so many museums.) Bilyeau's novel is an industrial drama, and Bilyeau has clearly done her research, and yet the research never overwhelms the narrative. What matters most in this novel are the story and the relationships.
WHERE TO FIND IT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, DuJour, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at City University of New York and a regular contributor to Town & Country, Purist, and The Vintage News.
A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel and an Oprah pick, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. The third in the trilogy, THE TAPESTRY, was published by Touchstone in 2015. Her fourth novel, THE BLUE, will be publishing on 3rd December.
Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR
FEARLESS BLOGGER TOUR
This blog is part of a tour organized by the International Thriller Writer's Association FEARLESS BLOGGER tour,. The Fearless Bloggers were created by Alison McMahan to help new thriller writers who were members of ITW promote their work. Blogs are written about new thrillers by thriller writers. All work is done on a volunteer basis.