by Sena Jeter Naslund
Beginning with the ceremonial rebirth of Maria Antonia of Austria sheds her old identity as the daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa and takes on the name Marie Antoinette, Abundance follows the girl as she marries her husband, the heir to the French throne, and begins her new life at the French court. Marie Antoinette struggles to consummate her marriage with a husband unable to perform in bed, and she is ill-prepared when she becomes Queen of France before the age of twenty. As the years pass, Marie Antoinette's kind heart and good intentions cannot save her from the wrath of revolutionaries determined to destroy the monarchy forever.
Sena Jeter Naslund is an author who loves details. Her writing is lavish and pretty, full of rich descriptions and little flourishes. Sometimes, it works beautifully, as when she describes the beautiful palace of Versaille or the fashions of women at court. But there are a lot of little moments that seem odd, or jarring. Four pages into the story, Marie Antoinette is admiring her naked body and the descriptions of it can best be described as fussy:
- “my naked body, a slender worm”
- “two arms sprout from either side of a bodily cabinet”
- “a neck rises up like a small lookout tower whose finial is the head”
- “I try to shelter this delicate garden because my new [pubic] hair seems frail and flimsy”
Marie is simultaneously sympathetic and unbearably obnoxious. She's an ignorant young woman, both naïve and inadequately educated, and her constant desire to be distracted from her problems by pretty things only reveal her character deficits. She gambles and she parties, throwing money at fashion and frivolities, and while she's always saying that she means well it's just so hard to overlook some of her poor decisions. In theory, Naslund should be praised for creating a character who seems to be consistent with the historical Marie Antoinette's behavior, but Marie Antoinette is such a spoiled and silly woman at times that it's hard to want to keep reading her words. In the end, Marie is redeemed less by her actions and more by the fact that she was clearly a woman in over her head who had no way to save herself or her family.
Some scenes do jump out and remain memorable. On one page, Marie Antoinette attempts to scale back her spending by reusing the china from the previous year instead of purchasing a new set as usual. But she realizes that if she cancels her order, those who manufacture the royal china will be put out of business, so in the end she goes on with the traditional purchase.
In this version of Marie Antoinette's life, her various love affairs are generally platonic. She and her husband, the King, have a deep fondness for each other, if not a great passion. A series of female friends are all close to her heart, but they don't cross the line into lesbian affairs as claimed in anti-royal pamphleteers (and some historical novelists). The great love of her life, Count von Ferson, does steal her heart, but neither he nor the queen ever act upon their feelings. I wouldn't call this a clean version of French history, but it's definitely a less scandalous spin on events.
The enjoyment one gets from the book will be almost certainly determined by one's tolerance for florid descriptive prose. Me? I enjoy a few pretty sentences, and revel in a rich description or delicate conversation, but when every sentence or utterance is as decorative as the Rococo art that filled Marie Antoinette's palace, it's just too much. I couldn't wait for the book to be over.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Winter Book Clearing Giveaway
2012: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See
2011: Random behind-the-scenes blogginess
2010: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco
2009: Atticus of Rome and Pandora of Athens by Barry Denenberg