The cover and title of Gardener to the King might lend a prospective reader to assume this slim novel is a light-hearted court romance, but Frederic Richaud's debut novel pulls far more weight than a first glance would suggest. The story of Jean-Baptiste de La Quintinie, gardener at Versailles to King Louis XIV, turns out to be not a lace-edged ode to royal glamor but an earthy exploration of individuality and existentialism.
La Quintinie is an appealing figure, a modest man who prefers his gardens to the courtier's balls, though he is kind-hearted enough to give the courtiers the benefit of the doubt and to love his King. When not spending time working the rows of his cabbages or pruning his fruit trees, La Quintinie wanders the French countryside, learning the peasants' wisdom and sharing his own. But when international and domestic events bring difficulty to the French, the King's response and the peasants' hardships make La Quintinie re-evaluate his loyalties - at a time when even a whisper of treason can, and does, send the King's subjects to the rack.
This was a charming read, executed in clear, crisp prose (much of this credit, I imagine, goes to translator Barbara Bray). Richaud is gentle about reminding us of the time period, resulting in a sense of gradual immersion rather than rich historicity. For such a short book, it works perfectly. His light touch on the descriptions also leaves the reader with time to contemplate the political and philosophical questions the author raises. I don't know if Richaud's subsequent novels (all historical, I believe) have been translated yet; if not, this is good motivation for me to work on my French!