The lyric gifts familiar from Davis (The Walking Tour, 1999, etc.) are on display again in this fictional life of Marie Antoinette—but technique rushes in as emotion goes into hiding.
There’s flash aplenty, and data galore, as Davis, in a compressed and impressionistic narrative, follows the doomed queen from childhood in Vienna on to glory in France, later through a widow’s dreary imprisonment, then to the very moment her head is severed by the guillotine’s blade—and even a little beyond. But there’s also a brittleness in tone and a certain stasis of manner that make the reader feel as though little is happening even when the monarchy itself is collapsing. Partly this rigidity may be the result of a divided focus: it’s unclear whether Davis’s subject is Versailles itself and the famously rich profligacy of the Bourbons, or whether it’s the queen herself, the real person, Marie Antoinette. Throughout are examples of tone slightly off—as when, early on, traveling to France, the young Antoinette remarks how much food the royal caravan consumes each day (“150 chickens, 270 pounds of beef . . . “), something more credible in the Michelin Guide than in the young princess’s thoughts. The tour-like information is always interesting (“An unfortunate site for the seat of Bourbon power, really: a hillock of unstable sand in the middle of a swamp in a wind tunnel of a valley”), but it lacks any capacity for bringing the story’s characters to life—not least its central figure and most frequent speaker, the queen. Much is fascinating—the king’s penis, for example: something is wrong with it, and it’s feared there will be no heirs—and there are moments of loveliness (“Shoes of soft leather, hard diamond heels. Where is the time gone? Who is the thief?”)—but never the inward life that alone can bring about any true drama.
Thoroughly researched, carefully composed—yet psychologically inert and unalive.