Picks and Pans Review: Palais-Royal

UPDATED 02/09/1987 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 02/09/1987 at 01:00 AM EST

by Richard Sennett

This beautifully written historical novel is set in the London and Paris of the 1820s. Through letters, entries in a diary and essays written for magazines of the period, Palais-Royal tells of four decades in the lives of two brothers and the French actress one of them loves. Revolutionaries take to the streets and a plague wipes out thousands. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort have one intriguing scene at the inauguration of the Crystal Palace in England, where one of the guests is a magnificently robed Chinese man who turns out to be a fraud. One of the novel's protagonists, Frederick Courtland, is a young architect working in Paris, where his brother, Charles, an Anglican priest, visits him. Charles becomes disenchanted with religion and quit's the church. Frederick falls in love with an actress, and their arrangement lasts for years. It is a time when those who have money live with elegance and decadence. The actress writes in her diary that she likes "the idea of matching food to clothes." Frederick is brilliant, but his career is thwarted; his ideas are grander than his clients' resources. Charles, a liberal thinker who outlives his brother, must come to terms with failure. By far the liveliest parts of this historically rich, detailed novel are those describing the theater of the period. These scenes and the fascinating character of the actress give off the same romantic atmosphere as that classic French film Les Enfants du Paradis. Sennett, a professor at New York University, is the author of The Frog Who Dared to Croak and An Evening of Brahms. (Knopf, $17.95)

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