It's amazing how often the rags-to-riches story actually plays out in life. Take the tale of the woman who ran France in the mid-18th century. When his official mistress died in 1744 and Louis XV was back in the market for a new one, non-aristocratic aspirants to the royal bed were serenely mocked in court. Everyone knew that sleeping with the king was strictly "an aristocratic privilege." But apparently no one informed the young Madame Le Normant d'Etiolles, ne{acute}e Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson, a daughter of the bourgeoisie and the wife of a financier, who, clinging to a fortune teller's promise that she would be a royal mistress, managed to seduce the king and get herself installed in his favor as the Marquise de Pompadour. The rest, as you know, is history, and it's zestily presented in Madame de Pompadour: A Life (Farrar Strauss Giroux, $26), a compulsively readable new biography of this well-dissected subject by French historian Evelyne Lever.

La Pompadour is famous for her role as power behind the throne of France -- the royal inner circle dubbed her variously "Prime Minister" or "oracle of the court" -- for the nearly 20 years (until her death at 42 in 1764) that she maintained a hold on Louis's head and hearth, if not his heart. A talented actress and singer, she was lionized as a patron of the arts at court, and she hobnobbed with the likes of Voltaire and Cre{acute}billon. But she couldn't leave it at that -- during the Seven Years' War she gave the king disastrous military advice that earned her some permanent enmity inside the court and out. Of course, Louis didn't have to take it, but it seems she was one tough cookie, and pretty hard to resist.

-- Zofia Smardz