A meticulous and vivid chronicle.


Thomas’ latest (Farewell, My Queen, 2003, etc.) illuminates an obscure corner of Western European royal history: the bartering of child brides and grooms.

In 1721, Mariana Victoria, the 3-year-old infanta of Spain, is married by proxy to King Louis XV of France, then only 11. The two are first cousins, descendants of the Spanish and French branches of the Bourbon dynasty. Mariana Victoria, with her cherished Carmen-Doll and a magnificent entourage, journeys to France, where she will live at various royal palaces (Versailles is her least favorite). The architect of this union, the Duc D’Orléans, Louis' uncle and regent until the king attains majority at 13, has sweetened the deal by adding his own daughter, Louise Élisabeth, to the mix—she is sent to Spain to marry her second cousin Don Luis the Prince of Asturia, Mariana's half brother and heir to the Spanish throne. Louise is 12, Don Luis, 14. Thomas skillfully extracts dramatic moments from the ponderous mechanics of nuptial diplomacy. On arrival in Spain, the French ambassador, Saint-Simon, gets lost in Alcázar, the mazelike royal palace of King Philip V, and detests Spain’s pervasive “[stink] of olive oil.” On Pheasant Island in the river Bidasoa, the princesses meet while crossing the border in opposite directions. Mariana finds an unlikely mentor in the shrewd, 70-year-old Princess Palatine, the regent's mother. Even more than most royal arranged marriages, these two unions seem doomed from the start. Not only must consummation of Louis and Mariana's marriage be put off for several years, threatening the succession (which is one reason D’Orléans, next in line for the throne, favored the match), but Louis prefers men anyway. Louise also prefers her own sex and has physical and mental health issues, including an exhibitionist streak. The infanta, though articulate beyond her years, seems to have stopped growing. Although the narrative pace is that of an intricate multipanel tapestry, the characters are brought to life in all their frailty. Cullen’s translation ably mirrors Thomas’ arch, scandalmongering style.

A meticulous and vivid chronicle.

Pub Date: July 7, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-59051-702-4

Page Count: 329

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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


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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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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