You know those MC Escher prints with the flocks of birds? In one direction you see black birds and then your focus shifts and you see that the white spaces between them are also birds? Well, imagine that the black birds are carrying all the action highlights of a story – daring rescues, climactic battles, noble sacrifices. The white birds are carrying the mundane in-between stuff – petty squabbles, days of travel, self-doubt. Now imagine a story that’s carried almost entirely by the white birds. That’s My Phillipe. Although the hero and heroine are people of action who have had many adventures during the Napoleonic Wars, this book focuses primarily on their inactivity after the fighting is over. It’s an interesting idea, but it doesn’t really fly with these characters.
In 1811, soldier/cartographer Phillipe Armitage and officer’s daughter Bella McFarlane gave in to passion one tumultuous war-torn evening. Soon after, Phillipe was presumed dead, so Bella married his aristocratic cousin Edwin and had a child. Phillipe later turned up alive and can’t forgive Bella for her betrayal, while Edwin died at Waterloo. All of the action after the affair takes place in the white space between the prologue and Chapter One, so we don’t see it directly.
After the war, Phillipe escorts Bella and her three-going-on-twelve son Jamie home to Edwin’s estate, where Phillipe and his sister were also raised. There they encounter several new characters, many of them irritating. Lady Edith, the dowager duchess and Edwin’s mother, acts like a spoiled six-year-old, flying into tantrums, questioning Jamie’s paternity with one breath and moping that he doesn’t love her with the next. She also insists on naming her pushy, imbecilic young neighbor Thackery as Jamie’s tutor. Bella responds by alternately quitting the estate in a huff, and putting her, Jamie’s and Phillipe’s fates in Lady Edith’s hands. Neither action makes much sense, but it’s a pattern in this book; Bella and Phillipe trust indiscriminately, and often rather stupidly. Their trust sometimes proves correct, but the risks they take still don’t seem justified.
The story picks up a bit in the final third, as Phillipe and Bella struggle to protect Jamie from a kidnapper. Until then, however, the story of active people facing peacetime doesn’t work very well. Jane Austen and Carla Kelly are masters of writing stories that are carried almost entirely by the white birds, but that is because their major characters are highly introspective, and can lend interest to very mundane events. Bella and Phillipe don’t have the internal resources to bring much insight to this storyline. They might have been more interesting in the wartime story that we see mainly in reflection and flashbacks.
My Phillipe seems well-researched to my untrained eye; there were details I haven’t come across before. The flavor overall reminded me somewhat of a Catherine Coulter novel, so her fans might want to give this one a whirl. But for my part, the closest link I could forge to any character was the fact that I once had a friend named Phillip who used to bemoan that any Phillip in literature (other than Marlowe) was bound to be a slimy bad guy. (I sympathized because literary Marys are generally either doormats or hos, and they’re almost guaranteed to die.) On that count, My Phillipe strikes a blow for Phillips everywhere, and goes a little way to righting this cruel inequity. Still, that’s hardly a reason to read the book.