Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness

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Acclaimed author Sheila Kohler's sweeping historical novel, Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, is based on the life of Lucy Dillon, an eighteenth-century French aristocrat. Wrenched from the court of Marie Antoinette by the Reign of Terror, the brave and resilient Lucy escapes with her family to the freedom and hardships of a newly independent America where, on a dairy farm in the Hudson Valley, she discovers a new life-and her true self.

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Acclaimed author Sheila Kohler's sweeping historical novel, Bluebird, or the Invention of Happiness, is based on the life of Lucy Dillon, an eighteenth-century French aristocrat. Wrenched from the court of Marie Antoinette by the Reign of Terror, the brave and resilient Lucy escapes with her family to the freedom and hardships of a newly independent America where, on a dairy farm in the Hudson Valley, she discovers a new life-and her true self.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A beautiful, authentic, intelligent, and page-turning story...a feast for the senses." — Amy Tan  "Elegant...exquisite." — Time Out New York  ""Sheila Kohler brings her courageous and resourceful heroine vividly to life in a stirring story of revolutionary times." -J. M. Coetzee  "Enchanting...Kohler's elegant, clearly written prose conjures a heroine whose enthusiasm for life and learning is infectious, and whose disarming manner is immensely appealing." -Booklist  "A radiant, sweeping book...marvelously readable." -Elizabeth Strout  "Bluebird is a page-turner saga." -Edmund White  "Sheila Kohler hitches her sensory-rich prose to a really good story: that of Lucy Dillon, an aristocrat (based on a real person) in Marie Antoinette's court." -More magazine
Publishers Weekly

The life of Lucy Dillon, an aristocrat in Marie Antoinette's court, is the subject of the seventh novel and flawed first foray into historical realism for South African author Kohler (Crossways). Through her resilience and resourcefulness, Lucy (based on the real-life Henriette Lucy Dillon) saves her husband, Frédéric Séraphin, and their children from the Terror during the French Revolution. The book opens in 1794 with Lucy and her family fleeing France, then flashes back episodically to her role as apprentice lady-in-waiting at court and her severe childhood despite her aristocratic privilege. The contradictions in her upbringing, the novel suggests, may have helped Lucy to become the resourceful person who could lead her family to the U.S. and establish a dairy farm in upstate New York, where her friendliness and butter become renowned. But two years later, once the Terror ends, Frédéric insists they return to France, though her time in America remains the moment when she lived out "the illusion... of being Queen of my own destiny." Kohler's writing is often deft, but the immense amount of historical material checks the narrative momentum. The novel succeeds better in conveying the particulars of Lucy's life, especially her adaptation to the rigors of American country life. (Apr. 24)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425219614
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/4/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Sheila Kohler

Sheila Kohler was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. She later lived in Paris for fifteen years, where she married, completed her undergraduate degree in Literature at the Sorbonne, and a graduate degree in Psychology at the Institut Catholique. She moved to the U.S. in 1981 and earned an MFA in Writing at Columbia. She currently teaches at Princeton University. Becoming Jane Eyre is her 10th book. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, O Magazine and included in the Best American Short Stories. She has twice won an O’Henry Prize, as well as an Open Fiction Award, a Willa Cather Prize, and a Smart Family Foundation Prize. Her novel Cracks was nominated for an Impac Award, and has been made into a feature film to be distributed by IFC. She has been published in 8 countries.

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Read an Excerpt

Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness

By Sheila Kohler

Other Press

Copyright © 2007 Sheila Kohler
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781590512623

The captain has been at sea for twenty days, going north instead of west, in wild winds, flying light in sleet and snow and a terrific sea, to avoid the Algerian pirates. Two leagues out from the lighthouse called the Tour de Courdoaun, he has been obliged to change course. More than the terrible equinoctial gales, more than the French men-o’-war, more than starvation, he fears the Algerian pirates. He has heard of what they do to their captives: tongues cut off, other parts removed. He knows they prey particularly on American ships, as the American government, unlike the French and the British, has no treaty with them.

This is his first command, this sloop, the Diana, a wretched 150- tonner, one mast, wooden latches to the doors, not a bit of brass about it, and the only cargo, the twenty-five cases his French passengers have brought with them. It rolls horribly even in light seas. He can barely stand upright.

It is mid-afternoon, but the seas are so high and the swirl of fog so thick, it is impossible to see the bowsprit. The dead-lights have been put up.

The captain is used to high seas and fog. He and his first mate come from Newfoundland, that watery and fog-weary place, but he has always feared the sea, has never learned to swim, and has had only a short apprenticeship under Captain Loxley on the Pigow.

He has had to order the mainsail furled in this strong wind. Boyd, one of the sailors, has been up the mast to grapple with it. His crew consists only of the first mate, a cabin boy, and three common sailors, since his fourth caught his loose clothing in the rigging and took a terrible fall on leaving Bordeaux, and was lost at sea. The captain doesn’t like to think about that, though he dreams of it. He sees the man falling through the twilit air, arms flailing, hands reaching for the rigging. In his dreams the man is somehow keeping himself afloat in the sea. He shouts after the ship that has been his home, fixing his gaze on the lantern at the stern, a speck of light which comes and goes with the waves.


Excerpted from Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler Copyright © 2007 by Sheila Kohler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide

1. What purpose does the diary or memoir (the sections in first person and in italics) serve in the novel? Is it a diary or a memoir? Or does it give us Lucy's inner voice?

2. How does the backdrop of the French Revolution enhance the work?

3. Does Lucy change during the novel and if so in what way?

4. Why does the author give us different points of view? How does this add to our understanding of Lucy?

5. Why does the author give us a detailed description of Lucy's childhood? Does it help us to understand her courage as an adult?

6. Do Lucy and Frederick have a good marriage in your opinion? And if they do, what is the secret of their entente?

7. What makes Lucy so sure of herself ?

8. Why does the author begin her book with the Captain's point of view, plunging us into the middle of her tale in this way? Would there have been other moments which might have been appropriate?

9. Would you have liked to know more about Lucy's life, her return to France, and her subsequent troubles and joys? Why does the author skip so many years in her life?

10. Why is a book about this violent period in France relevant to our lives today? What makes it new?

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Customer Reviews

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