Until that Distant Day by Jill Stengl - book review

"My story truly begins on a certain day in the spring of 1792, in the little domain I had made for myself in the kitchen at the bottom of Doctor Hilliard’s Paris house."
- Until That Distant Day, Jill Stengl (pg. 8)

So, hello there, friends! This blog has fallen a little silent . . . but I am back, if only for a short while (yeah, life is busy!). Here I have with me a book I just finished reading eagerly, abet sleepily, late into the night last week. A while ago, Anne Elisabeth Stengl emailed me about reading and reviewing an e-copy of her mother's latest novel, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity - I love Anne Elisabeth's novels so I placed my bets her mother must be pretty good too, I am a lover of historical fiction in general, and a novel set during the French Revolution sounded deliciously fascinating. (YES PLEASE!) Howweeverrr... I confess that I was hard-pressed to find time to read the PDF review copy once I received it, due mostly to the awkwardness of reading a rich historical French Revolution saga of a sprawling 400 page-length on the tiny screen of my phone (in tricksy pdf format); I procrastinated, sweated and left it to the last minute. Then last week, in a pinch of panic, I pulled up my laptop, curled up into a ball by the living-room couch, opened the pdf, and decided to plow through it. . . no matter the cost! By early Wednesday morning, having stayed up past midnight the night before to finish it, my eyes remained breathlessly glued to the screen till that last page! 

My thought-musings for this book comes quite overdue, but the saying is that late is better than never. Therefore, now I pluck the tattered shreds of my courage, and give you a review of this memorable novel, Until that Distant Day by award-winning author Jill Stengl. 
Until That Distant Day by Jill Stengl
Colette DeMer and her brother Pascoe are two sides of the same coin, dependent upon one another in the tumultuous world of the new Republic. Together they labor with other leaders of the sans-culottes to ensure freedom for all the downtrodden men and women of France.
But then the popular uprisings turn bloody and the rhetoric proves false. Suddenly, Colette finds herself at odds with Pascoe and struggling to unite her fractured family against the lure of violence. Charged with protecting an innocent young woman and desperately afraid of losing one of her beloved brothers, Colette doesn’t know where to turn or whom to trust as the bloodshed creeps ever closer to home.
Until that distant day when peace returns to France, can she find the strength to defend her loved ones . . . even from one another?
My Thoughts:
Well, for summoning up my thoughts, I find myself in a bit of a quandary, for I both loved this book fiercely for its uniqueness and realistic story-telling, while at the same time I also felt that there was a lot more potential and hinted possibilities (especially character-wise) for this book than was explored by the author. In the end, I probably enjoyed this novel far more than I anticipated, and I definitely got thrilled at every new twist and turn of Stengl's pen - she is truly a wonderful storyteller, with a deft hand at weaving characters and plots that seem unrelated, drawing their threads together suddenly and delightfully to a climax; quite a Dickens trademark! And the theme of fallen humanity during such an immoral era, and God's grace, His peace given to His children in a dark, troubled world, rang beautifully throughout the story's pages. 

Until That Distant Day starts off in a slightly un-characteristic fashion to the average historical novel, in the fact that Colette, the main character, talks to us through the story, telling us the things that happen and her thoughts in -what I felt- was the emotions of hindsight. It was very unique way, and I got interested in Colette's point-of-view and her quiet but strong and thoughtful interests quite from the start. She says, in opening, 'I was born believing that the world was unfair and I was the person to set it right.' That line pretty accurately sums up her disillusioned view of her city, the people she lives among, and her own stained past, while still caring about things, the people and places she knows, and desiring to better and change them - to help others and in so doing, redeem and heal her past wrong-doings and hurts. Colette is a strong heroine, with her own voice shining through - she drew me in as an endearing, faithful sort of woman - with her strengths,  flaws and heartaches. She has a caring heart, and serving hands and I related with her desire to watch out for all her many younger brothers, protecting them, scolding them soundly (just like a mother-hen) and holding them close to her heart, even when they did not fully appreciate her love. That was very special and relatable!

Set in the thick of things of Paris during 1972, I have to applaud Jill Stengl's deftness in writing a historical drama. It is in the small details, the language, the culture and in the very nitty-gritty descriptions of attire, food, weapons and furniture - the very air itself - through which an author best depicts the era he/she is writing in. With Until That Distant Day, I was instantly pulled into the world of the French Revolution, thanks to those special details - the garden of the doctor which Colette tends faithfully and fondly, the safe haven of the kitchen she works in with Leonie, the slums where she serves and gives food to slave girls like Telly. It was fascinating! The addition of French lines in the character's conversations added a excellent spice. Having always wished to add bits of Latin into the dialogue of my own Ancient Roman novel, I enjoyed this feature very much. Mais oui! 

As for the politics, I probably am not as well-informed about the history of the French Republic as I should be, and at first I was slightly confused when I read about the sans-culottes, and how the Republican assembly seemed in control of Paris, even though the King was still on the throne. I toddled off to my wonderful historian sister, Sarah, who explained the background of things for me all proper, so I learnt a thing or two more about the Revolution through Until That Distant Day in the mix! One of the things I love about historical fiction is that you learn about the past through the threads of a good story :). Perhaps the most stirring historical element was the massacre of the priests, and how Colette and her brothers were affected by that. That left me quite sad :(

You know how I mentioned Stengl's cast of characters reminded me of Dickens a bit? Well, I will talk about the characters now, because I think they deserve a good paragraph! :) As one reviewer said, this novel is totally character-driven. . . in some ways I think that the plot suffers a bit in balance, and that sometimes means that some characters, who seem like main-characters, play their roles in the background of things; often, you wish to know what this character is thinking or reacting over in the situation. But on the upside, following this story closely amidst a huge cast through Colette's eyes, you realize it is the same in real life. How often do you know the truth of things about other people, or what has been happening to them? You learn and understand through little bits and pieces about others - even about Colette herself, and you must be patient to get into the thick, exciting happenings of her life in time. And exciting things do happen!

Colette has many brothers, but we just get to know three of them: Pascoe, √Čtienne, and Claude. Pascoe and she are very close - but as the Revolution begins to unravel and become bloody, and Pascoe more and more a figure and leader of the Revolution, she and Pascoe drift apart. Could his resentment of Doctor Hillard, for whom Colette works as housekeeper, have a good enough reason? For his sake, could she give up a position she is truly happy in? Pascoe was at times very hard to like. If he is confident, charismatic, and full of charm - he is also a dissolute, rebellious and bitter, has a mistress, gets into duels, is bitterly sardonic of faith, and is all round a typical political hero in public, and a rascal in private-life. Colette loves him deeply, but her loyalties to the Doctor, and her desire to do what is right, bring that conflict to the fray. I enjoyed reading the relationship of the two, as siblings, both how close they were, and how conflicted they were. . . but how they loved each other deep down in the end. And so yes, I am glad I did not quite give-up hope for Pascoe, because, even for such a one as he, grace may yet be found. Claude. I think his character could have been explored more . . . what I glimpsed of him was not particularly endearing, but there were little glints of vulnerability to him that helped keep him real and interesting for the fleeting bits that we meet him. √Čtienne was my favourite of the brothers, though, he was the last I actually took the time to notice, in the same way Colette did. He is deeply religious, reticent and shy and also distant from the political whirlwind surrounding his siblings, but he cares a lot, and works hard at the blacksmith. I was cheering him along all the way :). Leonie Hillard (the doctor's daughter), was a mystery for both Colette and me from the start, but I enjoyed coming to know her, and even grew fond of her in  time ;). Leonie's childhood playmate, Adrienne, (and her husband Arnaud), was my favourite. . . she did wrong, and I was grieved to read about that, but her vulnerability and fears were so heart-wrending, she was so young, you cannot help but feel a shred of pity for her!  As for Doctor Hillard, he was even more mysterious and elusive than his daughter. Out of all the characters, he was probably the hardest nut to crack. If only he had more space in the story to 'get to know him', I think I would have come to appreciate him better.

While Until That Distant Day is a historical romance, there is surprisingly little romance to this novel (definitely not the lovey-dopey mushy sort!!), and as you all know, that was a winning point for me. This novel's focus was more on relationships besides the romantic kind, - on loving your neighbor, forgiving your brother, etc, - elements that are usually pushed aside in most novels these days for the Big Love Plot! What romance was there was sweet and appropriate, and totally fit the maturity of the characters - I did feel that the romantic arc for Colette in the novel was a little rushed, but other than that I had nothing to complain for the romance of this novel. The other side of the coin, however, is that this story deals with some detail on the moral situation in Paris during the Revolution that prevailed at the time - a truly immoral and godless age. Colette herself had a few unhappy affairs in her past for which she is both ashamed and grieved by (those are mentioned only briefly, in passing conversations), and on more than one occasion Pascoe urges her to take on the occupation of a mistress.  I thought that appalling for a brother to do, but I admired Colette's staunch desire to do what is upright, and her encouragement of other young ladies in the mire of immorality. I especially appreciated her kindness to Adrienne, in whom she saw much of her unhappy past. Though there is much reference to the immorality surrounding the Republic, none of them were given in any details. I would however recommend this book for older readers (16 and up), due to the mature themes.

My favourite part of this story was when Colette started to seek God and turned to Him. The faith elements of this story were really well-done, but one of the things I especially appreciated in the novel was the realistic depiction of the manner in which Colette found her faith . . . Stengl does not try to convert her to an Evangelical Christianity, in a forced sort of way. Some authors would insist that their characters be somehow exposed to a certain theology, the perfect spiritual environment involving the character praying The Sinner's Prayer', and so forth. I don't mean to say that an author ought to throw his/her beliefs to the wind for the mere sake of expediency.  But I found it very natural and right that Colette ( in the setting, culture and era she is in) finds Christ in attending the liturgies and Mass, hearing about the Good Shepherd from the words of the priest, and crying out to God to protect her loved ones. Well done, Ms. Stengl!

In conclusion to this rather lengthy review, I must say I really enjoyed this book. The climax was gripping, both emotional and sad, but at the same time beautiful and right. The ending probably could have been stronger, and where certain plot elements weren't explored as much as I wished, I am inclined to stick to the 4-star rating. But this is a lovely book! Where I expected a typical, half-churned out historical novel, I instead found a memorable tale of a woman's longings to do what is right, protect her loved ones and follow in Christ's ways. In its very looseness of plot, in the small realities of Colette's life within the very big realities of the French Revolution, I found much to love and appreciate, both story and character-wise, as well as in themes and hope, from Until That Distant Day.

Ratings: ****
Audience recommended: 15/16 and up
*I received a free e-copy of this book from the publisher for review.