The Marquise de Maintenon, nÃ‰e Francoise d'AubignÃ‰, born in a Poitou prison in 1635, became Louis XIV's uncrowned queen--and left 80 volumes of letters, the primary source of this densely researched historical reconstruction: Chandernagor has provided unobtrusive fictional stitching so that Maintenon may tell her own story. Francoise's childhood is bizarre--from prison days with Papa (lutist, counterfeiter, murderer) to a feverish year on Guadeloupe, an idyll with Huguenot relatives back in France, and conversion to Catholicism. Sans dowry, Francoise must either take the veil or--a livelier prospect--marry M. Scarron, the aging, crippled poet and wit. So, during the ups and downs of Scarron's salon (the ""Hotel Impecuniosity""), the 16-year-old Mme. Scarron discovers: the delights of drawing-room coquetry; that tantalizing ache for ""honor and glory""; the value of cultivating the influential; the thrilling vulnerability to passion. And, when Scarron dies, his young widow is taken under the rapier pinions of the King's prime favorite, ""the incomparable"" Mme. de Montespan, a greedy eminence of Olympian wraths; soon Mme. Scarron is even given the care of a series of children--offspring of Montespan and the King. But what of her strange dreams of replacing Montespan? ""I believe not in dreams but in merit, patience, restraint. . . we see fountains shooting skyward. . . but the force behind it has travelled league upon league, secretly underground."" Eventually, then, the man behind the Sun King image--capricious, profligate, callous--responds to Francoise's lingering beauty and sharp wisdom. She becomes ""Mme. de Maintenon""--or, as Court wags have it, ""Mme. de Maintenant"" (Mme. NOW). And, after the death of the Queen, she will become the King's morganatic wife: her influence is considerable; her wit, in stiletto commentary on the excesses of the Court or the sad follies of the self or of nations, is awesome; her spiritual/philosophical speculations are salted with caustic self-knowledge. (On the pursuit of honor and glory: ""It takes more strength than I possess not to run to the spot to which you see everyone else running."") With shrewd views--splendor and sewage in equal measure--of the Court of the Sun King: a rich, stylish, authentic impersonation.