Henri is a young soldier from rural France who enlists to Napoléon's army thanks to an obsession with the war hero from folk stories and patriotism. He was raised in the church, but only physically, as his priest's lessons were barely religious except in how it applied to life and love. As scrawny and sarcastic, he is made Napoleon's personal kitchen boy, eventually becoming disillusioned with his hero in favour of an obsession with Villanelle, a dangerous seductress spanning Europe. He murders a mutual enemy of theirs and develops serious mental illness.
Villanelle herself is a bisexual androgynous young woman from Venice who works at a casino, but is the child of a boatman, with both identities causing her to perform various masquerades, sometimes literally. Her undercover escapades find her becoming obsessed with an older woman — known as the Queen of Spades — who frequents the casino and whom she watches from behind her different identities, eventually starting a brief affair despite the older woman being married. However, Villanelle also ends up being married off to an overweight cook and from him being sold to the French soldiers as a service girl. She begins to love Henri, but is explicitly not in love with him and never will be.
Tropes in The Passion:
- Bi the Way: Villanelle.
- But for Me, It Was Tuesday: Napoleon invading Russia? You mean Henri and Villanelle falling about in snow.
- Corrupt Church: Some representations of priests are corrupt, but more generally are just improper, like being course, sexual, and drinking.
- Disappeared Dad: Henri's abandoned his family, Villanelle's is dead. This has some symbolic meanings for the book, but also directly affects their interpersonal relationships with father and lover figures in their lives.
- Evil Is Visceral: The Queen of Spades has been stitching a tapestry with Villanelle's actual heart (somehow) at the centre; Henri carves out the cook's heart, though whether this is marking him or the cook (or both) as evil to different extents is up to interpretation, but it's definitely the madness turning point for Henri and proves the heartlessness of the cook.
- Lady Looks Like a Dude: Villanelle, in some of her costumes. However, there is also reason to believe she really is gender/sex non-conforming in some way, because she has the webbed feet only sons do.
- Masquerade Ball: Villanelle's life, pretty much. Her job at a masquerade casino (in Venice, obviously) is used to reflect this, and Venice itself is also created as effectively a masquerade ballroom, to positive and negative results.
- Punny Name: The Queen of Spades, whom Villanelle meets through a card game.
- Sex Equals Love: For Henri, yes, as he gives his virginity to Villanelle and promptly falls in love. For Villanelle, though she does have a sexual relationship and child with Henri, does not love him romantically. The erotic moments between Villanelle and the Queen of Spades are also very chaste and romantic, rather than sexually explicit.
- Speculative Fiction LGBT: There are elements of historical fantasy, the entire representation of Venice, and it is also in this magical Venice where the free bisexuality and gender-bending of Villanelle and her lovers is confined. Notably, outside of Venice she sticks to heteronormativity.
- Wicked Heart Symbol: The two characters most associated with hearts are the Queen of Spades and the flabby cook, who are both at least dubiously evil, with the cook being particularly awful.