The French queen traditionally portrayed as a vain, heartless epicurean tells her own story in the industrious and versatile Kentucky author’s fourth novel (Four Spirits, 2003, etc.).
Scrupulously researched and vividly presented, it’s the highborn beauty’s account of her journey from Austria in 1770 (regretfully leaving her indulgent mother, Archduchess Maria Teresa), at age 14, to wed Louis Auguste, the 15-year-old Dauphin who, a few years hence, will ascend to the throne of France as Louis XVI. Determined to avoid “mistakes” in her unfamiliar surroundings and new role, Marie maintains correspondence with her mother, seeks friends and mentors among various ladies of the court and men of the world—and patiently endures prolonged virginity, as her husband, more interested in hunting than in his beautiful consort, waits years to consummate their marriage. Marie’s ingenuous sweetness is charming, but Naslund perhaps tips the scales unduly in portraying her as a woman of pure benevolence who never foresees the march of world-changing events, as revolutions break out in America and elsewhere, and “bread riots” trouble the peace of Paris while she and Louis enjoy their coronation. Still, it’s an irresistible story, and Naslund handles its big moments—indulgent spectacles at the palace of Versailles, the notorious Affair of the Diamond Necklace (in which Marie is falsely accused of adultery with a dissolute cardinal) and the beginning of the end as the royal family’s flight to Varennes ends in their capture by Revolutionary forces—with impressive assurance. The last 125 pages pass with blinding speed—exactly as events must have been experienced by victims of “the Terror”—and the numerous foreshadowings sprinkled throughout the text are cruelly fulfilled.
Naslund has done her homework, and imagined her complex, bewitching protagonist in persuasive depth and detail. The result is an exemplary historical novel.