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

FAREWELL, MY QUEEN

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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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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