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FW: Review-a-Day: Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette [by Ala. author]

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  • Amos J Wright
    ... From: reviews@powells.com [mailto:reviews@powells.com] Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 11:08 AM To: Amos J Wright Subject: Review-a-Day: Abundance, a Novel
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      From: reviews@... [mailto:reviews@...]
      Sent: Friday, October 13, 2006 11:08 AM
      To: Amos J Wright
      Subject: Review-a-Day: Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette


      Today's Review From
      Washington Post Book World

      Abundance, a Novel of Marie Antoinette
      by Sena Jeter Naslund

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      Mirror, Mirror
      A review by Ron Charles

      We'll start with dessert: Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them
      eat cake." Historians suggest several competing sources for that
      damning line, but everyone agrees that she wasn't it. As rumors
      about the young queen go, though, that's hardly the worst. When
      she came to France from Austria in 1770 at age 14, already married
      in absentia to the Dauphin, the populace loved her and the streets
      were strewn with flowers. But within a few years, radical pamphlets
      in Paris were portraying her in acts of reckless extravagance
      and outrageous debauchery. By the end, republicans even accused
      her of conducting a ménage à trois with her son. Amid the fiery
      chaos of the French Revolution, the veracity of these scurrilous
      claims made no difference. On Oct. 16, 1793, she was beheaded,
      using Dr. Guillotin's "humane" new contraption.

      For novelist Sena Jeter Naslund, the doomed French queen must
      have looked irrésistible. Naslund broke on to the bestseller list
      in 1999 with Ahab's Wife, a spectacular novel spun from a single
      reference in Moby-Dick. Marie Antoinette would seem to offer Naslund
      the same rich material for historical reenactment and feminist
      revision, but it turns out there's a limit to how much you can
      defend a sweet, spoiled, sheltered woman -- even an exquisitely
      dressed one. Naslund adds to this difficulty by using Marie to
      narrate this very long novel in the first person -- a choice that
      leaves us trapped, literally and figuratively, in the Hall of
      Mirrors.

      That's not to imply that there aren't pleasures to be found in
      Abundance. Au contraire: They're abundant. Naslund commands historical
      details to portray the world's most extravagant palace in all
      its dazzling splendor and inane ceremony. Her study of contemporary
      memoirs and letters allows her to speak in a voice that conveys
      the queen's delicacy and earnestness as she strives to be the
      embodiment of peace between Austria and France. "Fate, as well
      as my mother," Marie says correctly, "has dealt me a card of
      Importance."

      The opening chapters of the novel describe her extraordinary
      preparations
      for the passage from her homeland to France, a transition designed
      to strip her of anything Austrian and reclothe her in a new identity.
      In Naslund's richly eroticized retelling, Marie is completely
      naked at the moment of transfer. And from her first perfectly
      calibrated pronouncement, she impresses her new countrymen with
      her devotion: "Don't speak to me in German," she commands. "From
      now on I want to hear no other language but French."

      Because producing an heir was Marie's raison d'être, Naslund
      concentrates
      much of the early section of the novel on the queen's dutiful
      efforts to love (and arouse) the impotent Dauphin. It's an irresistibly
      intimate and bizarre story. Their wedding night is attended by
      dozens of servants and ministers, including an archbishop. (I'm
      not even Catholic, but I think having an archbishop along for
      the honeymoon would be a mood-killer.) Shy, awkward and phlegmatic,
      the poor Dauphin also suffers from a "too-tight foreskin" that
      keeps him from consummating their marriage for years, a political
      crisis discussed in humiliating detail all over Europe. Given
      that royal case of performance anxiety, it's a miracle anything
      ever happens, but seven years after their wedding night, Marie
      finally gives birth before hundreds of spectators.

      Too soon, though, the middle section of the novel grows flaccid,
      largely because it accurately reflects the narrator's ritualized
      and isolated life. As France's economic and political condition
      decays, Marie strolls through her vast gardens accompanied by
      servants and royal residents of Versailles. She unveils towering
      hair styles. She sits in her salon and makes a friend who likes
      kittens. She flirts -- alas, chastely -- with her husband's brothers
      and a dashing soldier from Sweden. She nurses resentments against
      a few foes, notably a crafty cardinal and the late king's mistress.
      But these potentially exciting villains never develop any substance
      in the novel, which remains focused on Marie's determination to
      do and say the right thing at all times. "I was never the most
      talented, the brightest, or the most beautiful of my mother's
      daughters," she tells us with deadening sincerity, "but I have
      tried to be good and to do my Christian duty." That's a marvelous
      quality in a young lady; not so much in a narrator. Naslund recreates
      Marie so sympathetically that we can't help aching for the queen
      -- except when we want to slap her.

      To be sure, there are intimations of trouble throughout France;
      after visiting from Austria, her brother writes, "I tremble not
      only for your happiness, but for your safety. I have seen enough
      in this country to know that the finances and welfare of the state
      are in a desperate condition." But immediately after reading his
      dire letter, Marie tells us, "Sometimes the water in the bath
      is of such a compatible temperature that it is bliss to submerge
      my body in the fragrant liquid." Calgon, take me away!

      The most telling episodes show Marie slipping innocently into
      extravagant habits amid an atmosphere of intoxicating praise and
      ease. While her husband helps finance the American Revolution
      (which Marie notes might not be the wisest thing for a king to
      encourage), she grows obsessed with gambling and redecorating
      -- anything to experience the sensation of risk and change. She
      buys a 5-year-old boy from a cottage in the woods but quickly
      loses interest in him. She prevails upon the king to construct
      an entire faux village for her to play in as an homage to France's
      peasants, many of whom are starving. Asked to economize, she cuts
      173 positions from her household staff -- and you know how difficult
      that can be.

      But despite these spikes of dramatic irony, Naslund remains the
      queen's most adoring attendant, an attitude that makes her too
      patient with Marie's narcissism and may also explain the novel's
      long-windedness. A stray reference to that old rascal Voltaire
      reminded me just what wit I was missing outside the perfumed air
      of Marie's boudoir.

      In the last 150 pages, the gears of the plot finally catch, and
      the horrible fate awaiting the royal family rushes at them, but
      the narrative remains cramped in Marie's narrow perspective. We
      hear of the king's trial only indirectly. Even her own trial,
      which could have been such a dramatic episode in the novel, passes
      in just a few paragraphs -- far less than we've heard about her
      hair, her garden, the beautiful smile of a friend. "Perhaps,"
      Marie tells us toward the end, "captive animals do not see beyond
      the grilles of their menageries." Abundance is a moving testament
      to that limited vision but also a frustrating reenactment of the
      self-absorption that killed the queen.

      Read the review online at:
      http://www.powells.com/wpb/review/2006_10_13

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