An accurate but lifeless retelling.

THE QUEEN'S LOVER

Du Plessix Gray attempts to fictionalize the love of Marie Antoinette’s life, without much success.

Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count, first meets the young Austrian princess Marie Antoinette, recently wed to the future king of France, at the Paris Opera. The handsome courtier and the graceful, sensitive dauphine instantly form a lifelong bond. Fersen, a diplomat and soldier, embarks with Lafayette’s armies to aid the American colonists in their revolutionary war, and his letters to his beloved sister Sophie detail these adventures. But eventually Fersen, after an exhausting grand tour in the service of Sweden’s flamboyant King Gustavus, reunites with Antoinette. The queen’s marriage, celibate for years due to a minor sexual dysfunction, is finally consummated and Antoinette is now a mother. As Louis XVI occupies himself with hunting and gluttony, Antoinette and Fersen tryst at her private lodge, Le Petit Trianon, and in secret quarters in the palace of Versailles. Soon, the revolt of the French populace ends this idyll. Fersen attempts to help the king and queen flee the revolution by smuggling the royal family out of Paris. Unfortunately, their escape is aborted, thanks in large part to the naiveté of Louis and the tardiness of Antoinette. As Fersen takes refuge in Belgium, the king and queen are held in progressively more restrictive settings until they are condemned to die. Although this is an absorbing and vivid exposé of the many missteps that led to the downfall of Louis and a sympathetic portrayal of the young queen and her noble endurance of the sadistic treatment that preceded her execution, it is not a novel. The narration, shared by Sophie and Fersen, hews too slavishly to events documented by contemporaneous accounts. All is summary; there are virtually no scenes imagining the characters’ lives; they never transcend their historically verifiable roles. Not even the last section, a grim recitation of Sweden’s own anti-royalist upheavals (leading to Fersen’s slaughter by an angry mob), realizes its dramatic potential.

An accurate but lifeless retelling.

Pub Date: June 18, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-59420-337-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: June 17, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2012

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Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and...

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THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?

For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.

Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.

Pub Date: Sept. 13, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-53703-2

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2016

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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