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Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

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Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Post by boswellbaxter » Tue August 16th, 2011, 5:03 pm

I received an electronic galley of this novel from the publisher.

This is a straightforward novel about the young Marie Antoinette, covering the period from her preteen years to her becoming Queen of France. I found Marie engaging and sympathetic, and her budding relationship with her husband was presented quite sensitively.

My primary objection to this novel is that it simply isn't the tour de force it's made out to be by the publisher. Marie Antoinette is what's referred to in the publishing industry as a "marquee name"--a historical character who can draw in readers through name recognition alone. Some of these historical characters, like Anne Boleyn, have become so popular a subject for historical fiction that it's difficult to come up with anything new to say about them. Grey's novel epitomizes this problem. The novel hits all of the plot points familiar to those who have read other fiction about Marie Antoinette--her relationship with her strict mother, her disgust at the rigid etiquette of the French court, her difficulty consummating her marriage, her correspondence with her disapproving mother, her refusal to acknowledge the king's mistress, the meeting with Fersen at a masked ball, her husband's unpleasant aunts, her husband's difficulties with his more socially adept younger brothers, the king's death by smallpox--and it doesn't do so in a way that makes any of this material fresh or particularly interesting. Even the details about the makeover that Marie had to undergo before making her royal marriage--among other things, she was made to wear braces on her teeth--can be found in other novels about the young Marie, like Melanie Clegg's The Secret Diary of a Princess and Carolyn Meyer's The Bad Queen. There's nothing wrong in itself in an author covering the familiar events of a historical character's life--it's certainly preferable to playing fast and loose with history, in my opinion--but those expecting a fresh perspective on the young Marie won't get it here.

I found the novel lacking in other respects as well. Grey has written several historical novels under another pen name, but there are problems associated with less experienced writers here. Marie, the narrator, often refers to her lack of learning, yet she tosses out classical allusions and ten-dollar-words with ease. "As you know, Bob" dialogue abounds, as in a scene where Marie's mother and Marie's brother tell each other things each knows perfectly well while Marie listens (of course) through a keyhole. There are "information dumps," as when Marie, having complained that she feels like one of the animals in her father's menagerie, proceeds to enumerate the aforesaid animals, not because it has anything to do with what is happening but obviously because the author has taken the trouble to find out what animals were in the menagerie and wants to make sure the reader appreciates her efforts. These aren't huge problems, but they grated on me.

About a third or so into the novel, letters from other characters to other characters began to appear, without Marie making any reference to these letters or being aware of their existence. Once I got used to this, it wasn't bothersome, but their presence was jarring at first.

In sum, for readers of historical fiction who are unfamiliar with Marie Antoinette's story, this novel isn't a bad place to start. Those who are, however, are unlikely to find much here to distinguish this novel from the others that have featured Marie Antoinette as the heroine.
Susan Higginbotham
Coming in October: The Woodvilles


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