Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey — 480 pgs

Ten year old Marie Antoinette is just a girl living amongst her many brothers and sisters in the Austrian court when her severe and rigid mother informs her that she will soon be wed to the Dauphin of France. This Marie is not happy about, and as she is little more than a child, she comes to regard this future match with much dread. But when the French ambassador sees Marie for the first time, it’s clear that she is unacceptable for many reasons, and her mother, fearful of losing Marie as a bargaining chip for Austria, begins a campaign to educate and beatify the young girl. Many torturous treatments are embarked upon and soon Marie’s head is being stuffed with knowledge and a new language as well. When she finally embarks on her journey to France as the Dauphine, future queen of France, she is scared and confused. Things do not improve when she meets her husband the Dauphin, as he is taciturn and seems almost oblivious to her presence, which shames and confuses her. But it’s the French court that really does a number on Marie, for its vulgarity and backbiting begin to threaten French/ Austrian relations almost immediately and Marie’s naive alliance with some of the courts rabble-rousing relations begin to undo all the things she has worked so hard to attain. As Marie’s loyalties and sympathies are tested and flaunted, she becomes an unwitting pawn in a very dangerous game of international intrigue and drama. But it’s her relationship with the Dauphin that is a constant prickle in her heart, for although he’s beginning to regard her with kindness, certain obstacles cannot seem to be overcome. It’s with an undeterrable sense of spirit and willingness that Marie Antoinette begins to undertake a plan that she hopes will one day bear fruit, and as she navigates the succinctly dangerous French court,  the shining jewel that will one day become the Queen of France begins to develop and polish her lustre. Both enveloping and provocative, this is the first thrilling book in a trilogy dealing with the remarkable life of Marie Antoinette.

As this is the first book of a trilogy, it dealt with the early years of Marie Antoinette’s life, from the time she was first contracted to marry the Dauphin of France at 10 to her eventual rise to the throne as Queen of France at 15. But this wasn’t a YA book. For the most part, this was a book about a humble girl of great origins who had to scrabble her way into the role that awaited her whether she wanted it or not. The young Marie was easy to sympathize with for the most part. Though she was young and had some flightiness about her, it was angering to see her being forced into more and more elaborate beauty treatments and rituals in order to satisfy the French ambassador. This included being fitted for what can only be described as medieval braces, and the descriptions of these scenes had me wincing in discomfort as Marie’s teeth were barbarically realigned by a master dentist. The sad part about all this is that Marie was constantly made to feel inferior and ashamed of herself in her natural state; a situation that reminded me of the way society treats the young women of today, constantly telling them that they are not quite good enough to deserve attention and reverence. Not only were her looks criticized, but her mind as well, and it was her mother’s stern admonishments and iron fist in the matter of Marie’s future that made her not only unapproachable, but sometimes cruel as well.

The second and more pressing concern for Marie came when she entered France as the Dauphine. All the rigorous preparation she had endured seemed to count for nothing, as she became aware that the court of France and the court of Austria were entirely different animals. Though Marie wanted to form an attachment to her new husband, the Dauphin, only a few years older than her, seemed impervious to her charms and the lack of marital harmony between them sparked rumor and speculation among the gossipy French court. Another problem Marie faced was her inability to tell when she was being manipulated to someone else's advantage. This rapidly brought problems for her and marred her already tenuous standing at court. For Marie, life was all about balancing her newfound relationship with her husband and her people with the good opinion of the reigning King Louis. In these sections, Marie’s good nature seemed to abandon her and she became somewhat smug and intractable, which of course brought reprobation down on her head. Part of the problem was that the French and their court were so much more manipulative than the court of her home, and all too soon, Marie found herself caught up in these plights as well.

What Grey manages to capture in this book is not only the coming of age story of Marie Antoinette, but the heightened drama that took place surrounding her eventual marriage to the Dauphin and the delicacy that was required for her to get herself beyond the traps that others had set for her. It was a delicious story that I ended up devouring in one sitting, not only because it was filled with the fascinating minutiae of court life, but also because Grey’s version of Marie Antoinette was one that I could immediately sympathize with and become concerned for. It was the type of historical fiction I hunger for, where people and places come alive, and where the past seems just as immediate as the life that you or I live today. Grey’s style and language drew me in from the first moment and carried me away to a place I wasn’t familiar with but that I felt at home in from first blush. I had wished the book was longer so that I could have found out the answer to some of the more puzzling aspects of Marie’s future, but I guess I’ll have to be patient in waiting on the next installment.

If you’re the kind of reader that prefers their historical fiction to be well rounded and character driven, this is definitely the book for you. There’s enough intrigue and court scandal to envelop even the most picky reader of this genre, and this version of Marie Antoinette is one that delights and sometimes confounds. I loved this book, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Marie will go next in her rise to the throne of France. I’m also looking forward to seeing the strange progression that she will face with her new husband, the Dauphin of France. A very entertaining and rich read, filled to the brim with historical detail. Recommended to readers of historical fiction of all stripes.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

19 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

This is probably the 6th or 8th review of this I've seen, but you have grabbed my attention. So I'm wondering how much of this is true, and how much is imagined? Surprisingly many of these books are built around alot of fact. 480 pages in one sitting - can't argue with that.

bermudaonion said...

I don't have a great track record with historical fiction, but this one intrigues me for some reason. After your review, I think it might be for me!

Jenny said...

Intrigue and court scandal will definitely get me to read this! I haven't read much historical fiction lately but I do generally like it. I actually have this one so I'm excited to get to it!

TheBookGirl said...

I love historical fiction, and after reading Madame Tussaud in which Marie had a pivotal role, I was curious to read more about her.
Sounds like this might be a good place to start.

I'm curious how long it took you to read this -- I can't imagine reading 480 pages at one shot, lol.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I love historical fiction, and I don't know much about Marie Antoinette. I think I will have to add this one to my wishlist. Loved your review!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I know what you mean about wincing about reading about the dental procedures - even in the last century you can wince reading about medical and dental stuff! I suppose one day in the future they will wince to think what we went through!

Audra said...

Great review! You articulated so much of what I loved about this book -- I was immediately caught up in the story and the characters. I think it's a gift if an author can make royalty relatable and Grey did it!

Ti said...

Historical Fiction is not a genre I typically reach for, but sometimes there is enough there that pulls me in and this one sounds like it could be one of those books.

Your last paragraph is exactly what I want when I read historical fiction.

Amy said...

I enjoyed this one. The court details and what went into making her "French" were wonderful. And I had a lot of sympathy for her; she's a child when she's shipped off and expected to be someone new but she doesn't even know who that person is yet. I'm looking forward to the next two books!

Darlene said...

I really enjoyed this book as well and it really sparked my interest in Marie Antoinette. I'm looking forward to the next one in the series.

nomadreader said...

This one sounds good! I do like character-driven historical fiction, and I've been meaning to learn more about Marie Antoinette. Thanks for this tip!

Aarti said...

Wow, this sounds great! I think it's so interesting that it's about a young girl but is not a YA book at all. I admit to being a little turned off by its weighing it at almost 500 pages and being just the first in a trilogy, but if you were able to finish it so quickly, that's fantastic! I am glad there's more being written about Marie Antoinette from a positive point of view these days. I think she's really misunderstood.

Meghan said...

Fantastic review Heather, I think you mentioned practically everything I loved about this book as well. I do read historical fiction so that history comes alive to me, and I completely agree with you that this book satisfied that requirement completely. I'll be waiting eagerly for the next installment along with you!

softdrink said...

Trilogy? Ack!

Suko said...

Another amazing review! How do you find time to read so much, AND then write so well?! This sounds like complex and inviting historical fiction.

Pam (@iwriteinbooks) said...

Fabulous review. Heather! I really need to get to this but I haven't had the time, recently. I love this history and I'm pumped that it's a trilogy. Fun!

Harvee said...

Glad to see that this book gives us a different picture of Marie Antoinette than the one we are used to - the wicked queen proclaiming about her hungry subjects, "Let them eat cake!"

Amy said...

It shocks me every time I read it that Marie Antoinette was 10 when she's told she is going to be married. It's inconceivable! I wonder when is the next time she actually felt truly happy. Her life sounds kind of nightmarish. And her mother was at the center of pushing Marie as the bride, Wow.

I didn't know this was the first book in a trilogy! Terrific. I really enjoyed your review. Thank you, Heather!

Aths said...

The only thing I know of Marie Antoinette are her last few tumultuous years. And reading about the young Marie in this book, it's kinda sad knowing what's going to eventually happen. Lovely review, Heather! I will have to check it.

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