HALFWAY THROUGH the opening chapter of this romantic historical second novel by the author of the much praised Interview with a Vampire I felt a great thump in my chest. It is a familiar complaint, easily diagnosed, for it strikes whenever I begin to fear that a book I have been looking forward to reading with enormous anticipation is not going to work. In this instance my expectation had been stimulated by recalling the originality of Rice's earlier novel and by her intriguing selection of the world of the gens de couleur (mullatoes, quadroons, octoroons) in antebellum New Orleans as a background. There was also the weight of the book and the publisher's jacket-blurb promise that the novel could be compared with Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind . However, by the second chapter the narrative, although desperately in need of an editor's unmerciful blue pencil, has a strange and compelling drive to it. My thump eased, but was never to disappear entirely.
Rice places the gens de couleur libre (free people of color) who dominated New Orleans' vieux carre before the Civil War, under a high-powered microscope. The story, set in the 1840's, weaves intricately around Cecile, dark-skinned mistress of the rich, white plantation owner, Philippe Ferronaire, and their two children, golden-colored Marcel Ste. Marie and his beautiful ivory-complexioned sister Marie, who could pass for white and yet defies counsel and custom by falling passionately in love with her brother's best friend, a young man darker than herself.
The majority of the gens de couleur were descended from African slaves but claimed as well the white blood of the men who had enslaved them and then set the progeny of their slave mistresses free. Yet they could not be looked upon as a liberated people. Far from it. Barred from white society, they also set themselves apart from and above not only the black slaves in their city but all blacks who did not possess some white blood. Theirs was a society riddled with snobbery, without any sense of their own place in history or for that matter, the foresight to see that their insular, multi-class-structured life was a certain path to extinction.
A parallel exists with the white aristocracy of the south at the same time. Thus, Rice has a rich tapestry to embroider and after her pretentious start, she draws her needle in and out of the canvas with an artists's sure touch. The shading of her language is lush and often original, as in a passage describing Marcel's visit to the Theatre d'Orleans: "Music rose violently and beautifully in the dreary gloom. Diamonds winked like stars. It was too solid, too perfect ever to have been, this music. Its rich and startling rhythms were like pure gold, something mined from the earth, and burnt to send its vapor heavenward." Or as in a later passage, "Cecile drank more of the sherry, and bent her profile scowling in the ray of sun. Dust swirled about her in the light, dust which in church in similar rays of light had often put Marie in mind of the Annunciation, the word of God coming to the Virgin in a ray of light. Those tiny particles seemed to be a spirit in the light."
Rice is extremely clever at texturing her characters and their personal stories. Every crease in every face, every stitch in every dress is vividly, minutely and well described. So tightly are the threads of doom woven that there is no possibility of the reader hoping for a miracle or a happy end. There is drama and melodrama rising and falling in a wild pulse beat on almost every page. Why then did I find the last 400 pages so hard to get through? And why did I feel so curiously unsatisfied when I had finished reading the book, considering how surfeited with literary skill I had been?
It seems to me that Rice has been choked out of her own novel much as a weed in an overgrown, overheated conservatory. The voice of the storyteller has somehow been lost. In such an overcrowded, claustrophobic atmosphere and without a single outside character to act as a catalyst or to form some sort of balance that renders a true perspective, the great tragedy of the gens de couleur libre is not clearly exposed. And in the end, The Feast of All Saints leaves the reader overstuffed by a rich, gastronomically elegant meal where the chef has meanly and most curiously left out the main course.