October 4, 2012

The Black Count by Tom Reiss: Review

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black countThe master of the revenge story, Alexandre Dumas, based many of his characters on his father, General Alex Dumas, who died when he was four years old. He worshiped his dad and this wasn’t just because he was his dad and took him fishing that one time. The guy was a genuine HERO.

Alex was born in Saint-Domingue (Haiti), the son of a slave and Alexandre-Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, a ne’r do well French nobleman hiding from his family. And what a family that was, full of soap opera-ish villainy. They were greedy and underhanded, and yet seemed to always bungle every venture they ever tried their hands at. After nearly everyone who counted in the family died, Antoine pawned his favorite child, Alex, for passage back to France. [But it’s all good, because he actually sent for his return (no, it’s not really okay). He outright sold his other children.]

Antoine was now a Marquis and spent money like a rap star, money he didn’t actually have. Alex benefited from this appearance of wealth, was well educated, and quite a sensation in Paris. As a young nobleman, he flirted with ladies, fought in duels, etc, etc. Most people liked Alex, who was charming and good looking, with the exception of the racist asshats he ran into occasionally. It seemed as if Alex was headed down the path the rest of the family had taken, until he had a falling out with his father.

After cutting ties with his father’s family, Alex joined the army. He didn’t just buy himself a place either; he started at the bottom and worked his way up quickly. He was good at it- smart, brave, as well as compassionate. It was good timing for Alex, because things were about to get very bad for anyone in France with a title.

Alex performed well during the Revolution. He acted bravely, yet humanely. These were crazy times. Ruthlessness was the order of the day. Alex gained the nickname, Mr Humanity; it wasn’t supposed to be a flattering title. He believed in the tenets of the Revolution, liberty and equality. After all, he had briefly been a slave and now here he was, a mixed-race person, the leader of armies. However, he wasn’t willing to shed innocent blood if he could help it.

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It was also during this time that he met and married the love of his life, Marie-Louise. After a brief honeymoon, it was back to the army. Things looked good for Alex, despite a few close calls with the guillotine. He was on his way to greatness, until that jerk Napoleon showed up.

By the time of his death at just 40 years old, Alex not only lived in poverty, but saw all the he had worked so hard for, freedom and opportunity for men of all races, scattered on the wind by the hand of one megalomaniac. But he would not be forgotten. Alexandre Dumas would recreate his father in the characters of The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, and Georges. In this way, he would live on forever.

I loved this biography by Tom Reiss. Reiss give the reader a sense of time and place. These aren’t just places on a map and dates on a calendar, you’re there with young Alex in Paris or on the battlefield against the Austrians. Alex himself isn’t just an historical figure, but a real flesh and blood person. I was fangirling all over Alex by the end of the book, especially after reading the parts of the love letters to his wife. They were only together long enough to get her preggers, but when he was away he wrote to her with such devotion. Yikes! Can I have a French general write me letters, please? When Alex becomes a prisoner of war, Marie-Louise sends frantic letters to everyone she can to try to get him back. This is a love story that should be told. Someone please get on that, okay? I would read the hell out of that book.

Not only is The Black Count well researched with attention to detail, but full of heart and humanity. It’s hard to believe that this was the life of a real person and not a character in a Dumas novel. Even if biographies aren’t your thing, give The Black Count a try.

This was a review book via NetGalley from Crown Publishing.

Ratings:

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7 comments :

  1. I'm reading this at the moment so didn't read all of your post (do "spoilers" count in non-fiction?) but I'm finding the same about the research. What I loved is that from the very start the inclusion of the bit about Reiss trying to get a meeting shows off the research element. Lots of writers say they research in different ways, but Reiss has literally shown it.

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    1. I don't really think there are spoilers in non-fiction, no. I liked that part at the beginning too. It was sort of like he was opening a tomb or secret room or something. It was really well done.

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  2. This sounds amazing! It is hard to believe someone lived such an incredible life, but it seems like there were a lot of incredible people and stories from this time period.

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    1. It was an exciting, and dangerous, era.

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  3. I read this book recently and loved it so much that I, um, got all of Reiss's other books from the library. Because I am a nerd. Glad to hear you liked it too!

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    1. I'll have to find his other books. I love his writing style.

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  4. I have this one, but I won't have a chance to read it until next month at the earliest. I look forward to it.

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