VERSAILLES

Thoroughly researched, carefully composed—yet psychologically inert and unalive.

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.

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2002

ISBN: 0-618-22136-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2002

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

THE UNSEEN

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Norwegian novelist Jacobsen folds a quietly powerful coming-of-age story into a rendition of daily life on one of Norway’s rural islands a hundred years ago in a novel that was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.

Ingrid Barrøy, her father, Hans, mother, Maria, grandfather Martin, and slightly addled aunt Barbro are the owners and sole inhabitants of Barrøy Island, one of numerous small family-owned islands in an area of Norway barely touched by the outside world. The novel follows Ingrid from age 3 through a carefree early childhood of endless small chores, simple pleasures, and unquestioned familial love into her more ambivalent adolescence attending school off the island and becoming aware of the outside world, then finally into young womanhood when she must make difficult choices. Readers will share Ingrid’s adoration of her father, whose sense of responsibility conflicts with his romantic nature. He adores Maria, despite what he calls her “la-di-da” ways, and is devoted to Ingrid. Twice he finds work on the mainland for his sister, Barbro, but, afraid she’ll be unhappy, he brings her home both times. Rooted to the land where he farms and tied to the sea where he fishes, Hans struggles to maintain his family’s hardscrabble existence on an island where every repair is a struggle against the elements. But his efforts are Sisyphean. Life as a Barrøy on Barrøy remains precarious. Changes do occur in men’s and women’s roles, reflected in part by who gets a literal chair to sit on at meals, while world crises—a war, Sweden’s financial troubles—have unexpected impact. Yet the drama here occurs in small increments, season by season, following nature’s rhythm through deaths and births, moments of joy and deep sorrow. The translator’s decision to use roughly translated phrases in conversation—i.e., “Tha’s goen’ nohvar” for "You’re going nowhere")—slows the reading down at first but ends up drawing readers more deeply into the world of Barrøy and its prickly, intensely alive inhabitants.

A deeply satisfying novel, both sensuously vivid and remarkably poignant.

Pub Date: April 7, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-77196-319-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Biblioasis

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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