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Farewell, My Queen: A Novel Paperback – July 10, 2012
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As revolution rages outside the palace walls, inside the court of Versailles--the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI--denial reigns before giving way to alarm, which in turn degenerates into panic and chaos. Thomas spins the familiar events of the 1789 French Revolution into a compelling novel, with the central character less the famously ill-fated queen than the insular and ritualized society of the palace. The story is told by a woman looking back 30 years, to when it was her job to read books aloud to Marie Antoinette. Her status as courtier makes her the best kind of narrator--at once an insider and an observer of the royals. She describes the final days before revolution engulfs the palace with insight and surprising slices of humor. Some passages read almost like satire, as the indulged inhabitants of Versailles cling to the privileges that have defined their now-threatened lives--royals are reluctant to leave the palace without proper traveling attire, courtiers try to flee while lugging heavy possessions. Thomas' formidable skills as a researcher give the book authenticity, and her keen eye for human behavior and talent for storytelling make it sing. Karen Holt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
"Elegant, powerful ... No ordinary historical novel. It's a bravura glimpse into a time past and a dreamlike life that seemed to have nowhere to go but into oblivion." -The Washington Post Book World
“Delightful … Vivid and elegant … [A] rich tableau vivant … In these pages the ill-fated queen is allowed to be human.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Illuminating … Intimate … The charm of its language, Thomas’ thorough research, and her compassion for her subject not only imbue the novel with remarkable authenticity but also render it a memorable billet-doux to a bygone France.” –Orlando Sentinel
“A fascinating portrayal … Gorgeous details.” –The Christian Science Monitor
"Graceful, exquisitely detailed . . . the delights of this rendition lie in the details. . . . Like the tiny enamel painting of Marie Antoinette's bright blue eye that inspires Laborde's reminiscences, this is a cunning, gem-like miniature." --Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Compelling . . . Thomas's formidable skills as a researcher gives the book authenticity, and her keen eye for human behavior makes it sing." --Booklist (starred review)
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The piece put me in mind of Chantal Thomas's engrossing historical novel, Farewell, My Queen, which I'd just finished reading. The link in my thought loop can probably be traced to Thomas's description of life at Versailles, circa 1789, on the eve of the French Revolution--a time when celebrity worship remained enshrined in decades-old court ritual; a place where courtiers never ceased obsessing over the high and mighty or stopped touting their connections to the court's most celebrated residents, Louis XVI and his glamorous but vacuous Queen, Marie Antoinette.
To my mind, Thomas's novel makes a good case that answering in the affirmative to any of the The Mail's CWS quiz statements would have been as risky to body and soul in 18th century France as it would be practically anywhere today. One could argue, as perhaps Thomas intended, that mindless celebrity worship, especially when celebrity is undeserved or ill bestowed, was and is a waste of time and human potential. However, that premise, even if proven, would not lessen the appeal of Thomas's fictional account of Marie Antoinette's Versailles. Rather, Farewell, My Queen manages to be one of those guilty literary pleasures (the emphasis on `literary' is intentional) akin to soaking up an especially well-produced episode (if there ever was such a thing) of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. That is because Thomas packs her novel with enough glamour, enough excess, enough suspense--enough insider information--to inspire fresh interest in a tale whose conclusion is no mystery.
It helps that, besides being a gifted writer, Thomas is well qualified to take on her subject. An expert in 18th century literature and a scholar of French history, she gets down to business quickly by introducing Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, the novel's first-person narrator. An all but invisible court functionary, Laborde provides a fly on the wall perspective of the French Court during the early days of the revolution (Thomas adds a soupçon of irony by making her narrator a lowly "reader to the Queen").
First encountered in 1810, some twenty years after the Queen's execution, Laborde is living the life of an elderly exile in Vienna. Yet neither time nor distance can diminish the image of the woman she still calls "my Queen." A dyed-in-the-wool royal groupie, Laborde begins her narrative by attempting to replace a queen known for her profligacy, who even at the height of her powers was deeply unpopular, with a rose-petal-pink goddess--kind, fragrant, beautiful, "a light that never goes out."
That she fails in the attempt can be attributed to a classic case of mission creep.
Laborde's starry-eyed portrait of Marie Antoinette as a beautifully turned out, gentle sovereign--a Queen who dispenses kindness to courtiers and servants alike--is richly detailed. Yet, the narrator's idyll shatters when she begins to include the less savory aspects of court life. It turns out that one of the entrancing afternoons Laborde recounts--hours spent observing the Queen thumb the pages of a fashion magazine--occurred simultaneous to the storming of the Bastille. Likewise, the royal banquets Laborde describes ("four main courses, twenty side dishes, six joints of meat, fifteen regular desserts, thirty little desserts, a dozen platters of pastry...") are either gobbled by the royals--or in the Queen's case, picked over and discarded; meanwhile, ordinary French citizens starve to death. According to Laborde, even the gilded cages at the royal zoo house sickly, neglected animals.
And then there are the narrator's memories of the palace itself, Louis XIV's magnificent château famed for its Hall of Mirrors, for its richly appointed apartments, its priceless paintings and statuary. Laborde's Versailles, however, is (literally) a seat of pestilence: its beautifully furnished rooms, infested by rats; its lavish gardens constructed upon reclaimed swamplands still swarming with mosquitoes. In fact, Thomas repeatedly invokes the château's deceptive splendor as a metaphor for what ails the court and the country. Everywhere, it seems, there is decay and corruption lurking just below a pretty façade--a façade that is only a few days away from destruction.
Things go south in a hurry when King Louis XVI submits to the National Assembly and dismisses his foreign army.
Left unprotected at the wide-open château de Versailles, the courtiers panic as news of the countrywide riots spreads. The Paris mob is on the march, headed for the château, a list of "286 heads that have to fall" in hand. In short order, the freeloading nobility, like rats from a sinking ship, flee the palace.
But not Louis, the stout little man who never wanted to be King, who prefers forging locks in the royal smithy to the tedious rituals of the court and the incomprehensible duties of government. And not his (in)famous Queen.
In a final act of courage, the royal couple remains at Versailles to meet their fate.
Laborde narrates these final days paying particular witness to the frazzled and dazed Queen as she rallies to arrange the flight of her favorites, including Laborde herself, who eventually escapes to Switzerland.
The novel's conclusion is sudden, providing little in the way of closure. But perhaps that is an appropriate narrative choice on the author's part. In fact, it may be that Farewell, My Queen demonstrates how quickly things can come crashing down--no matter how celebrated, or deeply entrenched in seemingly unassailable ritual and/or culture.
Surely this remains a worthwhile aide-mémoire in the twenty-first century given how the powerful (and those who idolize them) are just as apt as ever to be blinded by the klieg light glare of celebrity. So disastrously blind, in fact, that sometimes they cannot discern how fragile is the foundation upon which their illusions rest.
Jack A. Urquhart is the author of several works of fiction, including the short story (available here at Amazon), "They say you can stop yourself breathing".
The novel is seen through the eyes of a young woman in the court, one who reads to the queen. The reader's daily life gives us an insight into the rituals and rules and ridiculous red tape that comes with any entrenched bureaucracy: the waste of time, tax-payers' money, and continual reinforcment of a system bordering on petrification. What brings this system to life though are the warnings of its possible death. The only problem is that those living in the grandeur of Versaille don't want to believe what they hear. Yet, their insticts know better. Some listen and flee; others remain to face the consequences. Still outsiders from the aristocracy seek refuge at Versaille and tell those leaving how dangerous the roads are for the rich. Confusion reigneth.
The character of the queen's reader, star struck by Marie Antoinette, is the perfect reporter because she has no other interest than pleasing the queen. The queen and her dearest friend Gabrielle may or may not be tribades, as is hinted at in the novel. In fact, the queen needs a friend and most likely that's what Gabrielle is. Marie Antoinette, having lost her oldest child and her revered mother, throws herself into fashion. The king, believing the people love him and that he's overcome political problems before, consoles himself with the weather--the daily temperature to be exact. They've holed themselves up in the country, recreated it into an early Disneyland, but without the Fibreeze since it reeks of sewer smells.
We the reader are placed in the position of the queen's reader and cringe at her piecemeal information and early denial of it. Yet, despite our knowing of the awaiting guillotine for the royals, we're not quite sure what we would do in that palace: run for our lives, hope for negotiations, or simply choke on our cake.