Title: The Natural History of Love
Author: Caroline Petit
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Affirm Press
Published: 26th April 2022
Synopsis: For fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words, The Natural History of Love is based upon the true story of 19th century French explorer, naturalist and diploma the Count de Castelnau and his lover Madame Fonçeca; a sweeping historical narrative set in the wilds of Brazil, salons of Paris and the early days of Melbourne’s settlement.
When Melbourne lawyer Nathan Smithson takes on the case of mad, wealthy Edward Fonçeca’s inheritance trial against his ruthless brother in 1902, he must unearth long-buried family secrets to have any chance of winning.
Brazil, 1852: François, the Count de Castelnau and French Consul to Bahia falls dangerously ill on a naturalist expedition and is delivered by a rainforest tribesman to the Fonçeca household. Carolina Fonçeca is 16 years old and longing to leave the confines of her family’s remote Brazilian sugar plantation. With a head full of Balzac and dreams of Parisian life, she is instantly beguiled by the middle-aged Frenchman. What Carolina doesn’t know is that François has a wife and son back in France. Desperate for a new life, she makes a decision that will haunt her forever.
The Natural History of Love flits between the early 1900s – around 1902-1903, and the 1860s-1880s, and between Brazil, Paris, and Melbourne. When the Count de Castelnau, French Consul, François, falls ill, he is nursed back to health at the Fonçeca household by Carolina, aged sixteen. She longs for a life beyond the Brazilian farm and begins an affair with François – who already has a wife and son, and when she falls pregnant, her life changes forever, and she drags a young son, Charles, along with her. As their lives go on and they move to Paris, she finds herself confronted with the realities of her decision before they’re thrust into the lives of colonial Melbourne, where they welcome a second son. But things may not go as planned, and eventually, it seems that their lives will come crashing down around them.
In 1901-1903, Melbourne lawyer, Nathan Smithson takes on Edward’s case against his brother, who is accused of awful crimes, and to prove the case against Charles and help Edward, Nathan must uncover sordid, long-buried family secrets.
Told between Carolina, François, and Nathan’s perspectives, the story is told in what felt like diary entries and letters – recollections of what had happened and presented as though the narrative was happening as Nathan was reading the diaries and letters, he found to help him build the case. At first, this style took some time to get used to, as at first, it felt as though some aspects about who was who, and what was meant to be going on were a bit ambiguous, though perhaps this was the point. I also felt as though it took time for the story to get going, though once it did it was quite intriguing, though I did feel it was one of those books I needed to concentrate on, so I read it more during the day than at night.
Each character’s perspective is clearly marked with their name, so we get the clinical and professional view of Nathan, the emotionally powerful and brave Carolina, and finally, the deceptive and emotionally distant François, who is trying to do the best by everyone, though he is hurting everyone through his actions. I’m not sure if there were any truly good or bad people in this novel – perhaps the character one feels the most empathy towards is Edward, and at times, Carolina, who is trying to do the best she can for her sons, Charles, and Edward. It is an interesting book as it examines the idea of love and its different iterations, as well as what some people do or love – for those they love or how they use love as a tool to manipulate people and get what they want.
It is one of those novels that is fascinating, even though at times, I wondered what was going to be revealed, as there was much held back until we needed to know, or until the end when things were wrapped up and we finally understood what was going on. The reasons why things were held back and at times left to be ambiguous made sense at the end of the novel. It’s an interesting look at a family who lived in these times, and based on real historical figures, as Caroline explains in her author note at the back of the novel. It may be best suited to people who like a very literary style, and I did feel as though it needed a lot of focus and concentration in some parts, so I did prefer to read it when I didn’t have other distractions, but it was still an interesting story and one that I had never heard, and good historical fiction highlights these stories.