Considered by some to be "the first novel" (along with The Tale of Genji
, and a few other contenders), this book was circulated anonymously in the court of Louis XIV, and credited to Madame de Lafayette. The novel is set in the court of King Francis the First, a century beforehand, an era that most of her contemporaries would have considered a modern golden age, similar to the Kennedy administration
By all accounts Francis was a strange and startlingly intelligent man, who kissed Leonardo da Vinci on his deathbed, "to receive the last breath of a genius", more to the point, he greatly enlarged the National Library, by seizing on the possibilities of this new "printing" thing, and snapped up dozens of paintings and rare antiquities from Italy, forming the basis of a collection that we now call the Louvre. Also his work is the building of the hauntingly beautiful Chateau at Fountainbleu, and the establishment of an art school there, known for its tasty female nudes (some showing rather delicate lesbian acts, like touching nipples and such..kind of cute...). His court is known as where Anne Boleyn got her licks, and marks, for some, the definitive break away from the Mediterranean as the center of Western civilization.
The Princess, at first, is not a princess at all: she's been launched into High Society life at the age of 15 with the instructions to find Mr. Right, but also to Do Right. Since there's been this previous scandal involving her uncle, she finds opportunity after opportunity slipping through her hands. Finally, she marries the gentle, well-meaning Prince of Cleves, a "middling suitor" who, although not necessarily in love with her, wants to see her happy, and gives her all due attentions. She, on her part, has resigned herself early to being a second fiddle to the Big Fish, and eking out a life as Working Wife-and-Mother, albeit in somewhat more luxurious surrounds than the average housewife. Her progression from spineless wimp to strong-willed agent of her own affairs is one plotline.
The Duke de Nemours, on the other hand, is a piece of work. Her diametric opposite, he's known as the biggest ladies' man in court, a swaggering Lothario, who, after several glasses of wine, bet his friends he could have any woman, married or un-, in the current court. The fellows proposed the Princess, as Least Likely to Fold, and the bet was on. He starts to attend her salons, and then, to be interested in her every move. As the story goes on, and his interest moves from cavalier scoring to a deep and passionate regard, the question of who's going to cave in first goes from a whisper to a scream.
Part of what makes this book so nail-bitingly suspenseful is that nobody has any privacy at all, except, maybe, to go to the loo, and even then, there's probably a servant in charge of rearranging your clothing or something. Every letter, every meeting, every visit to Mass or to Confession is noted, scrutinized, and analysed, if not by at least three other nobles, then by servants. Thus the Duke's growing real love for her, and the Princess's loss of innocence, is conveyed, not through dramatic speeches, sudden urges to walk in the gardens by moonlight or bodice ripping, but indirectly, through actions that would otherwise seem unremarkable: he has made a new color of tabard for an important event, she decorates a walking stick with some ribbons, or buys a new painting for her summer place. Their greatest good time together was spent over an afternoon, writing goofy fake love letters for someone else, with her husband in full attendance.
An oddity of the book is that very little of it is spent in description. You'd think, given that this is an historical novel, that there would be lavish descriptions of clothing, palaces, court masques, and the like. Instead, there's almost none, unless it has something directly to do with the story. Sharp-eyed readers will detect a certain quirky ungrammar in some sentences: an idiosyncratic use of the word "this", for instance, which most translators preserve into English.
The ending is either a) shockingly heartbreaking or b) an epic anticlimax, and I'll leave it up to you to figure out which. A best-seller in France for nearly 400 years, it clocks in at less than 200 pages. I'd advise you to check it out.