During one alternately rainy and scorching summer vacation, author Susie Kelly and her husband, Terry, set off on bicycle to follow the journey of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette through the Marne Valley. Along they way, food is consumed, physical endurance is tested, and French history is shared. More than as travelogue, as it were, The Valley of Heaven and Hell immerses readers in the past while engaging their sympathies for present troubles. The result is a memorable shared trip through 750 kilometers' worth of France.
For those of us in desperate need of a vacation, this narrative takes us out of our humdrum lives and allows us to travel alongside Susie and Terry, all while learning about a couple most recently brought to the fore by a woefully inaccurate film featuring Kirsten Dunst as the much maligned queen. What could have been a very dry rendering of French history becomes a fascinating story, told by a woman who clearly cares about the subject matter. Relayed with the same zeal that the author applies to present day foibles, readers quickly find themselves engaged. Beyond the Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Kelly also explores the impact of World War I on several of the locations through which they cycled. The end result is as educational as it is entertaining.
In the scenes depicting the ride itself, the author conveys various mishaps and her own emotional state with a self-effacing humor that is often hilarious enough to make a reader laugh out loud. Granted, the transitions between past and present are a little abrupt at times, but on the whole, I can appreciate the attempt at seamless shifting based on location. The author also saw fit to include helpful URLs for items and areas of interest for those of us who are a little less well-traveled. The inclusion of references buoys the credibility of the factual information presented.
I suppose that this review is shorter than most, but it's rather difficult to explain what made a very long bike ride, the French Revolution, and some WWI so utterly fascinating. Suffice it to say that I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a literary getaway minus the expense of an actual trip.
(Review copy provided by the author)