Scholarly precision in an artful, fluid, compelling narrative: Vive la reine!


A former reader to Marie-Antoinette recalls July 1789, in an edifying and masterly first novel, winner of the Prix Femina.

Living in Vienna in 1810, elderly Agathe-Sidonie Laborde recounts her gossamer memories in Versailles as Marie-Antoinette’s deputy reader. Specifically, she recounts the haunting hours of July 14, when news reached Versailles that the Parisian mobs had stormed the Bastille, to her flight with the Queen’s favorite, Gabrielle de Polignac, to the Swiss border two days later. Laborde is a fly-on-the-wall observer of the grand, nearly surreal spectacle of Louis XVI’s court, where time is calibrated obsessively by the King’s Levee, reading of the daily temperature, hunts, meals, and Couchee. Occasionally, Laborde is called to the Queen’s bedchamber, where the devoted servant reads Marivaux or extracts from the Magazine of New French and English Fashions while feeding on the entrancing sight of her royal mistress. The days of July spread panic: the King has dismissed his Minister of Finance, sent away his army of foreign soldiers, and capitulated to the National Assembly. The “list of 286 heads that have to fall” is read by the terrified courtiers; Laborde is summoned to the Queen’s chambers to extract her jewels from their settings in order to flee with them to Metz—an escape that never occurs. French scholar and biographer Thomas (The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, 1999) fashions terrific suspense while providing delicious characterizations—like the cynical, mockingly powerful Diane de Polignac—and sinister touches like the slattern Panic serving the gluttonous King a dead rat. Though stung by the desertion of the royalty and horrified at the savagery of the mob, Laborde doesn’t lose her literary composure: “I have witnessed the erecting of something like an immense and perfect monument to the glory of the King, and now I was conscious only of the cracks already splitting it . . . .”

Scholarly precision in an artful, fluid, compelling narrative: Vive la reine!

Pub Date: June 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-8076-1514-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Braziller

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2003

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An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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