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Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinetteby Sena Jeter Naslund
Synopses & Reviews
"Like everyone, I am born naked."
With this opening line of Naslund's compelling new novel, a very human Marie Antoinette invites readers to live her story as she herself experiences it. From the lush gardens of Versailles to the lights and gaiety of Paris, the verdant countryside of France, and finally the stark and terrifying isolation of a prison cell, the young queen's life is joyful, poignant, and harrowing by turns. As her world of unprecedented royal splendor crumbles, the charming Marie Antoinette matures into a heroine of inspiring stature, one whose nobility arises not from the circumstance of her birth but from her courageous spirit.
Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas, the young queen embraces her new family and the French people, and she is embraced in return. Eager to be a good wife and strong queen, she shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in doing so, fails to give her the thing she — and the people of France — desire most: a child and an heir to the throne.
Deeply disappointed and isolated in her own intimate circle apart from the social life of the court, the queen allows herself to remain ignorant of the country's growing economic and political crises. She entrusts her soul to her women friends, her music teacher, her hairdresser, the ambassador from Austria, and a certain Swedish count so handsome that admirers label him the Picture. When her innocent and well-chaperoned pilgrimage to watch the sun rise is viciously misrepresented in satiric pamphlets as a drunken orgy, the people begin to turn against her. Poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge as the royal family and many nobles are caught up in a murderous time known as the Terror.
With penetrant insight into new historical scholarship and with wondrous narrative skill, Naslund offers an intimate, fresh, and dramatic re-creation of this compelling woman that goes beyond popular myth. Abundance reveals a compassionate and spontaneous Marie Antoinette who rejected the formality and rigid protocol of the court; an enchanting and tenderhearted outsider who was loved by her adopted homeland and people until she became the target of revolutionary cruelty and violence; a dethroned queen whose depth of character sustained her in even the worst of times.
Once again, Sena Jeter Naslund has shed new light on an important moment of historical change and made that time as real to us as the one we are living now. Exquisitely detailed, beautifully written, heartbreaking and powerful, Abundance is a novel that is impossible to put down.
"The opening sentence of Naslund's fictional memoir of Marie Antoinette ('Like everyone, I am born naked') sets a hypnotically intimate tone that never wavers as the much-maligned Austrian princess recounts her life from baptism in the Rhine and rebirth as French citizen to appointment with the guillotine. In Naslund's (Ahab's Wife) sympathetic portrayal, 14-year-old 'Toinette' arrives in France a pretty-mannered naf determined to please the king, the court and, most importantly, her husband, the Dauphin. The novel provides a wealth of detail as Toinette savors the food, architecture, music and gardens of Versailles; indulges in hair and clothing rituals; gets acquainted with her indifferent partner and her scheming new relations; and experiences motherhood and loss. Her story unfolds like classical tragedy — the outcome known, the account riveting — as famous incidents are reinterpreted (the affair of the necklace, the flight to Varennes), culminating in a heartbreaking description of the bloody head of the Princess de Lamballe held aloft on a pike for the deposed queen to see. With vivid detail and exquisite narrative technique, Naslund exemplifies the best of historical fiction, finding the woman beneath the pose, a queen facing history as it rises up against her." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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 menage a 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 irresistible. Naslund broke on to the best-seller 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'etre, 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. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Immersing us in the life of the French court at its most vulnerable and decadent time, Naslund's marvelous work is more detailed and has more depth than Carolly Erickson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette." Library Journal
"Naslund has done her homework, and imagined her complex, bewitching protagonist in persuasive depth and detail. The result is an exemplary historical novel." Kirkus Reviews
"Intensive historical inquiry enables Naslund to re-create Marie Antoinette's life with empathy and irresistibly piquant detail." Seattle Times
"If you read one book about Marie Antoinette (also the subject of a movie starring Kirsten Dunst this fall), let it be Sena Jeter Naslund's gripping, gabby and beautifully poignant novel about the French queen's brief reign and bloody end." USA Today
"Carefully researched details about such things as the decor at Versailles lend verisimilitude but also often serve as symbolic motifs." Booklist
About the Author
Sena Jeter Naslund is Writer in Residence at the University of Louisville, program director of the Spalding University brief-residency MFA in Writing, and current Kentucky Poet Laureate. Recipient of the Harper Lee Award and the Southeastern Library Association Fiction Award, she is editor of The Louisville Review and the Fleur-de-Lis Press. She is the author of the novels Ahab's Wife, Four Spirits, and Sherlock in Love and a collection of stories, The Disobedience of Water. She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
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