Author: Juliet Grey
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Marie Antoinette #2
Pages: 426 (paperback edition)
Published: May 2012
Source: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours in exchange for a review
A captivating novel of rich spectacle and royal scandal, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow spans fifteen years in the fateful reign of Marie Antoinette, France’s most legendary and notorious queen.
Paris, 1774. At the tender age of eighteen, Marie Antoinette ascends to the French throne alongside her husband, Louis XVI. But behind the extravagance of the young queen’s elaborate silk gowns and dizzyingly high coiffures, she harbors deeper fears for her future and that of the Bourbon dynasty.
From the early growing pains of marriage to the joy of conceiving a child, from her passion for Swedish military attaché Axel von Fersen to the devastating Affair of the Diamond Necklace, Marie Antoinette tries to rise above the gossip and rivalries that encircle her. But as revolution blossoms in America, a much larger threat looms beyond the gilded gates of Versailles—one that could sweep away the French monarchy forever.
Another solidly impressive journey into the life of Marie Antoinette, Grey again proves, with her second novel in a planned trilogy, that she is a skilled writer, able to evoke time, place, and characters with equal vivacity. Beginning two weeks after the first novel, Becoming Marie Antoinette, ended, Grey immediately relaunches herself and the reader into an opulent, turbulent world with her title character more prominent than ever in French society. In this detailed, rich novel, full of eye-popping descriptions of everything from le Petite Trianon to the poufs that adorn Marie's head, both the narrative and the letters from the Queen to her family at home in Austria all serve to form a comprehensive picture of life in Louis XIV's France. Formerly the Dauphine, transitioning now into the role of the Queen of France, Marie finds herself with prestige, but little actual power. Iconic, but politically impotent, bereft of the love and attention she desperately craves, Grey provides ample reasons (that actually work!) for the reasons behind the monarch's spendthrift ways. Much like the evolution she underwent in the first book, this well-rendered version of Marie Antoinette is far from stagnant, but makes choices, for good or ill, that will drastically affect the people and country she governs.
The Marie so carefully cultivated by the author is much more than the villianess that most of history remembers her as. Spoiled, yes. A glutton for fine things? Yes. But evil, intent on harming the common folk and abusing them? No. The vivid woman shown here in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is a more mature, more intelligent version of the girl she used to be and Grey takes care to paint her protagonist as realistically as possible. For all that Queen Marie is remembered and vilified as a one-sided caricature of vice, selfishness, and greed, Grey shows a multitude of other facets of her personality. Kind, lonely, funny, maternal, the author is deft in her portrayal in all the facets of this fascinating woman from the good to the bad. Her Marie Antoinette is always not wholly sympathetic ("For what is money, with happiness at stake?"), but she is often understandable in her opinions and attitudes. With her well-meaning but often oblivious husband Louis balancing an already-taxed treasury with the wants, demands, and rights of the people he rules by divine right, Marie and her coterie of noble ladies find themselves skewered by cartoonists, and resented for the life of grand palaces and sumptuous gowns they use once and discard, despite the Queen's good intentions.
Louis plays a larger role in the second novel than he did in the first; the King is much more directly involved with the plotline of this novel than the previous. More peripheral in the introduction of the series, here in part two, now, married and reigning as King, this Louis indulges his wife's flights of fancy, and spending as a concession to make up for the lack of intimacy and input he offers her in their private life. With the Queens of France traditionally have prestige but no real governing power, Louis is very Gallic and rigid in his role, a devoted adherent to the traditions his wife so dislikes. Louis is a good foil for his spendthrift femme; often shown trying to reign in the out-of-control treasury, his royal brother's profligate attitudes about women and coin, to little or no avail. He is not developed as Marie, but he is shown in realistic views - and Grey even tries to rectify his reasons for a lack of a royal heir (for seven years after marriage!) with a possible, plausible medical condition. His (unknown?) rival for Marie's affections in the Swedish Count of Axel von Fersen adds even more intensity and tension to a novel thick with conflict. Though there is a love-triangle of sorts in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, Juliet Grey is able to pull it off with aplomb, without making it halt the plot's momentum or the characters involved tiresome. Each man appeals to a different side of the complicated Queen, and though she may be more her father's daughter than she thought to be, Marie's attractions to both came off as authentic - as did her actions.
For the most part, I thought that first-person POV was an excellent choice to showcase the plot and varied characters of this story. It allows for a closer view of Marie and how she works internally, and reading Marie's well-intentioned inner monologue helps to firmly create the three-dimensional version of the character. It is easy for feel for the entitled Queen, even as she haplessly carries herself and her friends toward a grisly end. With factions all around her vying for favor (Polignac vs. Lamballe, etc) even among her dearest friends, Marie Antoinette is a commodity, a property, to be used and controlled for position, power, and money. Her narration helps humanize her and separate this version from the historical, as even her own family-in-law undermines her with the people. The only places the narrative stumbled for me were the thankfully rare occasions that abruptly jumped to third-person narration - like Emperor Joseph's meeting with du Barry, or Jeanne de Lamotte's cunning deception of the Grand Almoner, Rohan. A nice flow, and even pacing across long periods of time, coincide with the well-chosen point-of-view, and all add up to a thoroughly enjoyable, eminently readable historical fiction novel.
Juliet Grey ably paints a vivid, frenzied look at Marie's troubled, occasionally vapid existence of self-interest and whim. Between the constraint of etiquette steeped in outlandish traditions and little privacy that she found so oppressive, and Marie's subsequent alienation of certain powerful nobles, and with the French-monarchy-supported American Revolution giving the French people new ideas, wants and seeding deep doubts about the right of divine rule, the foreshadowing is subtly woven into the novel and reminds readers of the royal family's ultimate fate while still leaving them wanting more. A fully realized scenario of the French country and economy as it stood in Louis XIV's reign, the atmosphere of Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow grows ever bleaker and more ominous with her chapter. It's a hard to put down book, but one that is easy to involve yourself with the goings-on even as that fateful day in October looms ever closer.
Juliet Grey delivers a solid, engrossing, completely entertaining sequel. One that is filled with fleshed-out versions of the historical personages known so well, even into the modern age. Not mere stereotypes or villains, but real, plausible renderings of people who have left a mark on history. What Becoming Marie Antoinette started, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow ably continues - a tradition of well-written, thoroughly detailed, engrossing historical fiction novels centered on one of the most interesting times and people in history. I personally cannot wait to see how this talented author will chose to recreate the last years of Marie Antoinette's life, and the fall of the Bourbon dynasty to the French Revolution with the trilogy's conclusion, The Last October Sky.