Is this any way for a queen to behave?
Spoiled and self-absorbed, Marie Antoinette was tragically slow to grasp that her new country hated her.
Let's get one thing out of the way first: She never said it. It's the most famous queenly quip this side of "We are not amused," but it's all wrong. Marie Antoinette never uttered "Let them eat cake." (The callously offhand remark probably belongs to the wife of Louis XIV, who reigned 100 years earlier.)
That misquote was one of the more PG-rated examples of the smear campaign that ended only when the French queen was led to the guillotine in 1793. For years, she was accused of everything from having orgies to sexually abusing her son. But in Sena Jeter Naslund's new novel Abundance, only a few poisoned whispers make it past the gates of Versailles. Her heroine is a coddled, self-absorbed beauty, who learns only too late how much her adopted country hates her.
This fall, pop culture seems to have a sweet spot for the doomed monarch. Academy Award winner Sofia Coppola's stylized new "Marie Antoinette" opens Friday. "Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution" by Caroline Weber sashayed down the runway last month to loud applause. There's even a book about Marie Antoinette's perfumier. (Thankfully, designers haven't yet tried to persuade women to replicate her towering poufs; skinny jeans are fashion torment enough for one season.)
"Ahab's Wife," Naslund's 1999 bestseller, took one reference in "Moby-Dick" and created an intoxicatingly inventive (if historically inaccurate) portrait of a proto-feminist. Perhaps wrongly, I was expecting a similarly revisionist take on Marie Antoinette. While "Abundance" is an enjoyable historical novel with a wealth of period details, its worldview (like its narrator's) is so insular it can be difficult for a reader to parse what was going on outside the Hall of Mirrors. (Rousseau gets a cameo at an opera; Voltaire is reduced to a one-line mention.) As a result, when the peasants storm the palace, it comes as a surprise to the reader as well as the queen.
First, though, she had to become Marie Antoinette. In Naslund's knockout opening, the 14-year-old girl is stripped naked at the border of France, divested of all things Austrian, even her name and her beloved dog.
"Do so much good to the French people that they can say that I have sent them an angel," her mother, Maria Theresa of Austria, admonishes. (If you ever complained of an interfering parent, think again. The empress had spies everywhere, reporting on all her children's movements.)
Naslund has many nice touches, as when the newly named Marie Antoinette brushes a crumb of bread onto the floor so that a French ant will be grateful to her, and when she gasps at the red liquid flowing from the fountains in Strasbourg (it's wine). But it's less foreshadowing than bad writing when Naslund ends chapters with "The lovely lives of real flowers are short" and the query, "But will they love me?"
Despite Toinette's stated willingness to love her lumpish husband, Louis XVI, it takes six years to consummate their marriage. To mask her unhappiness and humiliation, she indulged in some retail therapy, gambling recklessly and spending madly on clothes, bejeweled dishes, and even a model French village (complete with porcelain milk buckets painted to look like wood) where she could play at peasantry. Like Kirsten Dunst's pink-Converse-clad royal in the new film, this Marie Antoinette just wants to have fun.
"I want to be filled with evanescence, with fizz," she tells one of her hangers-on.
The novel could have used less abundance when it comes to pages. Kathryn Davis managed her highly acclaimed 2002 take on the queen, "Versailles," in less than half the space. The middle portion of the book wiles away too many idle days detailing the queen's many diversions and the rituals and ceremonies that cut in to her playtime.
Meanwhile, the situation in France is deteriorating. Her older brother, the emperor of Austria, tells her that "I tremble not only for your happiness, but for your safety.... The revolution will be cruel, and I am sorry to say that it will be of your own making." "Abundance" fails to show the reader this fomenting unrest, and the desperation that caused it.
Although entirely lacking in common sense, Naslund's Toinette is a charming, generous young woman. She proves a devoted mother, and Naslund convincingly portrays her grief at the deaths of two of her children – although even here she is criticized. "The court calls the time I lavish on my children frivolity," she sighs.
Unlike Coppola's movie, Naslund follows her heroine all the way to the guillotine. The last 150 pages absolutely fly as the plot (finally) kicks into high gear. Events such as the affair of the necklace and the flight to Varennes are nicely detailed (although her trial gets surprisingly short shrift).
Naslund may cast too fond an eye on the pampered princess, but as the queen faces imprisonment and beheading with both charm and a new dignity, even the most cynical reader will wish for a last-minute pardon.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.