DeJean describes the impetus behind this book as her desire to unravel the love story between Marie Louise Magoulet and her husband (briefly), Louis Chevrot. But inevitably, the young lovers take a backseat to the generations of in-laws before them, who eventually reach such a cartoonish level of underhanded dealings that by the time DeJean is suggesting Jean Magoulet impersonated his own dead brother for years to facilitate a double life, she includes several original documents, as if she knows things are beginning to beggar belief.

And that, somehow, is not even the wildest data point in this story, which features guild-hopping, inheritance fraud, domestic abuse, eloping to England, sending toddlers to their deaths, locking the gates against the poor, and the occasional escape from a chain gang. There’s an impressive depth of research — this is, as much as anything else, a mystery about the manipulation of record-keeping and identity — and it reveals an equally impressive depth of both determination and depravity in some of the family figures, but by the time she introduces John Law and the 1720 stock market crisis to provide a wider historical context, it’s almost a footnote to the family disaster. That’s quite a trick given the scope of that particular economic panic, but with nearly 30 major players, sheer generational entropy dwarfs everything else. (There is a detailed family tree at the front of the book; you will need it.)

I reviewed The Queen’s Embroiderer for NPR Books!