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The New Age

Sunday, August 16, 2009

GILDED YOUTH

Three Lives in France's Belle Epoque

By Kate Cambor

Farrar Straus Giroux. 323 pp. $26

Kate Cambor's first book opens in 1914, the year France lurched from the opulence of the Gilded Age into the clamor of the modern world. Gone were the days when debutantes danced until dawn at mountainside resorts and literary giants like Victor Hugo and Alphonse Daudet presided over exclusive Paris salons. Ushered in was an era of war and disorientation. "The new generation of writers and politicians . . . were engaged in a battle of epic and Oedipal proportions," Cambor writes. "At stake was nothing less than the heart and soul of Mother France."

This new age is seen through the eyes of three young Parisians: Léon Daudet was the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, Jeanne Hugo the granddaughter of Victor Hugo, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot the son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Each was born at the height of Third Republic society, "poised, more than most, to take advantage of the promises of the dawning century." Instead, the three friends fell victim to a string of personal and political crises. As Cambor notes, the problem was primarily one of momentum -- the "faith in science and progress" that defined the Gilded Age was eroded by the arrival of mechanized combat, psychoanalytic theory and a dizzying rush of experimental art. Born to one era, Charcot, Daudet and Hugo struggled, and failed, to adjust to the mores of the next.

-- Matthew Shaer

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