The Disenchantment by Celia Bell starts off slowly despite the setting of 1680 France and volatile politics. Characters make the mistake of expecting their lives to unfold much as they always did, but a few poisoning cases put spouses, aristocracy, servants and police on edge. Grudges lead to accusations and informants who lie to give police what they want and avoid torture, trials and brutal executions.
Men control households, finances and their children’s destinies. Baronne Marie Catherine de Cardonnoy lives with the shame of holding her deceased mother in low regard throughout her childhood, due to her lower-class background. “She had thought that her mother cared for nothing but money and clothes, but perhaps she had simply looked at her child, destined for the convent school, and known that her daughter would grow up a stranger to her.”
Trapped in an unhappy marriage to an older man with higher social prestige, Marie Catherine spends freely, too, distracting herself with new dresses, new furniture, vases and perfumes, orange trees and horses – “anything that would remind her that the money was hers, even if her person was not.”
Throughout marriage, Marie Catherine loves and misses her volatile father, because he controlled her life, mixing kindness with whippings. His advice to her: “You may think whatever you want in private, my dear, but do your duty and keep those beliefs that might upset decorum to yourself. Your spirit is free, but your speech and your conduct must be ruled by custom.”
She ponders how to “cross that gap, into the mystery of another human,” one who may feel as she does about rejecting social conventions.
A busy social life and popularity with aristocrats who appreciate her storytelling skills shield Marie Catherine from her husband's wrath. She pretends the stories are from her mother rather than inspired by the nursemaid who raised her: “If her mother had never told stories, then she’d simply invent a different mother.”
The wealthy, including her friend Victoire de Conti, worry less about rules and convention. The two women become lovers after a furtive drunken encounter at a soiree, and Marie Catherine wonders how Victoire had the courage to take the first step, without worrying about another individual’s desires
Victoire occasionally moves around town freely in male attire, visiting Marie Catherine. A servant sees a kiss and blames an artist painting her portrait. Servants beat the man nearly to death, and the husband threatens his wife with the loss of their children and banishment to a convent.
That same evening the baron is assassinated. Servants and police suspect that the killer sympathized with Marie Catherine for being trapped in an unhappy marriage. Marie Catherine poses questions to learn the truth and concocts a tale to evade questions and prosecution. But others lie, too.
Before her husband's murder, Marie Catherine meets Mademoiselle de Scudery who writes about a land where women hold power and asks, “Do you ever believe that your life would have been happier if you had not imagined that land and had it to compare with this one?” The woman insists that life would have been much worse without the imaginary land. Imagination is the first step to finding freedom and changing old customs that might hold us back.