In The Blue, author Nancy Bilyeau has written a thrilling novel of industrial espionage in the world of 18th century porcelain manufacture. The heroine, Genevieve Planché, the English-born descendant of French Huguenots, is a talented artist and wishes to become a serious painter like her idol, William Hogarth. But this path is closed to women in England, and her only prospect is a position with Derby Porcelain Works, a firm founded in part by her cousin, Andrew Planché, who was a real person, even though Genevieve is entirely fictitious. Genevieve hates the thought of a dull existence spent painting flowers on porcelain. Venice would be more open to the idea of a woman as a serious artist, but she has no money to get there. Then, at a Christmas party hosted by Hogarth, Genevieve meets the intriguing and unscrupulous nobleman, Sir Gabriel Courtenay, who offers to finance her journey to Venice if she will go to Derby and steal the formula for a stunning new shade of blue.
At the time The Blue takes place, In the late 1750s, England and France are in the middle of the Seven Years War. Porcelain is an extremely valuable commodity, with the wealthy paying huge prices for it. The secret of porcelain-making has only recently come to Europe, by way of, among others, a spy who stole the formula from China and a chemist imprisoned for ten years by the ruler of Saxony until he came up with a porcelain that wouldn't shatter after being exposed to heat. Two of the leading porcelain manufactories are the Derby Porcelain Works and its great rival, Sèvres in France, which enjoys the patronage of King Louis XV's mistress, Madame de Pompadour. To gain an advantage over Sèvres, Derby has hired a brilliant young chemist, Thomas Sturbridge, to come up with the shade of blue that Sir Gabriel hires Genevieve to steal. As Bilyeau explains, blue pigments are the most difficult to manufacture, and a completely new shade would be worth a fortune.
As Genevieve arrives in Derby, she realizes her task will be more difficult than she thought. The owners of the porcelain manufactory distrust her, in part because she has a French name, and she is constantly under scrutiny. She has to share a room, which makes it difficult for her to read the letters Sir Gabriel sends her in invisible ink which has to be held up to a flame. The chemist, Thomas Sturbridge, does not live on site, but in a closely guarded secret location. After she begins to make friends at the porcelain manufactory, Genevieve seriously regrets what she must do. And then, when she finally meets Thomas Sturbridge, she falls in love with him, and things become much more complicated. Can Genevieve betray the man she loves? She tries to get out of her bargain with Sir Gabriel, but it turns out the stakes are higher than she ever expected. Sir Gabriel has her kidnapped, and her journey eventually leads her to France, where she meets Madame de Pompadour and Louis XV, the king she hates because of his persecution of her people, the Huguenots. Will Genevieve's love for Thomas survive this deadly web of intrigues?
Bilyeau's writing keeps you on the edge of your seat. The Blue is written in the present tense, which I usually dislike in historical fiction, but this time I think it works because it makes you feel as if you are following Genevieve on her journey. Genevieve is an admirable heroine, but with flaws which make her all the more human. She is incredibly talented, but she is also impulsive and sometimes gullible, which makes her vulnerable to intriguers like Sir Gabriel. Genevieve has a great sympathy with the poor, as a result of her experience with her former fiancé, who started a riot in his workshop in order to improve the conditions of the workers there. She sees the terrible unfairness of a world where the wealthy spend huge amounts for a piece of porcelain, while the poor starve. But at the same time, there is a certain attraction between her and Sir Gabriel, even though she despises what he does, and what he is making her do. Sir Gabriel is a fascinating villain, and Bilyeau keeps the reader guessing as to his motives. There was one twist I did not see coming, but which I will not give away. Bilyeau writes compellingly of the history of porcelain, with asides about Newton's theories of color, and makes it interesting for the reader. I highly recommend The Blue to anyone who wants to read an excellent historical thriller. Readers of Lost in the Stacks will be interested to know that Bilyeau is a University of Michigan graduate. I met her at the Historical Novel Society Conference in 2013, but this has in no way influenced my review.
The Blue is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.