Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Monday, July 11, 2011

Author: Juliet Grey
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Marie Antoinette #1
Pages: 444 (uncorrected ARC)
Published: August 2011
Source: won in giveaway from GoodReads
Rating: 4/5

Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first of the author's planned trilogy about the woman baptized as Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna of Austria, but remembered and historically vilified as Queen Marie Antoinette of France. Chronicling her all-too-short years from adolescence to her ascension to the throne of France in 1774, a well-rounded, human version of the woman emerges from the pages of this easy-to-read historical fiction. The later books in the series (Days of Sorrow, Days of Splendor is the tentative title of book two) will focus more on the time Marie reigned alongside her doomed husband, Louis XVI.

While this novel can be historically uneven (the "nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen” stated on the back blurb is untrue because really, all she had to do was be born at the right time, to the right family; the author has her struggle to learn French but Marie Antoinette spoke French fine as Vienna was a multilingual city, however she had poor reading comprehension and writing skills) and take liberties with facts and dates, I more than enjoyed this look into a younger Marie Antoinette. Beginning when the petite archduchess is only ten, the novel chronicles several tense years as she tries to cement with marriage an alliance the Empress Maria Theresa desperately needs.

Thrust between two all-powerful monarchs (the aforementioned Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire and Louis XV of France) in a then-prevalent way of forging peace between warring European states, Marie has to please her mother and honor Austria all the while making France her country's ally. By trying to remain true to Austria all the while attempting to win the unfriendly French to her side shows the sheer impossibility of Marie's position in life. Amid impossible goals, treacherous relatives, scheming courtiers and her own impossible husband, it was remarkably easy for me to feel quite sympathetic for this character. Using this constant national game tug-of-war between the powers frequently creates a great deal of tension and pressure for the young girl for the entire novel. While she might be dauphine and first woman of France, Marie never is free or independent, nor truly, exuberantly happy. She attempts sex and/or affection many times with her husband, but he is painfully shy with her, almost a recluse. Marie, coming from a huge family of fifteen siblings and parents who married for love, is understandably upset by his lack of feeling and thus isolates herself from her one true ally for much of the novel.

I've not read many Marie Antoinette historical fictions, or even ones centering on the Gallic world. I tend to stay amongst the British and their Plantagenet, Lancaster/York, Tudors, Stuart families, etc.  Winning this novel on has opened my eyes to a new, creative writer with a fresh take on this centuries old parable of overindulgence and moral decay. Happily, in this novel of hers, Ms. Grey does not immediately launch into the salacious and popular tales of the archduchess. By showing Marie at her most charming and vivacious in her young carefree years at home in Austria, a subtle foreshadowing of her tumultuous life in France is immediately brought to mind. I was very interested in her large, fractious Hapsburg family (fifteen siblings! Maria Theresa was a woman emperor -- in her own right! her parents were a love-match!) and thus the days at Shonbrun or the Hofburg, a palace that boasted a serving staff of 2,000 people alone!, were the most interesting for me. Another thing this novel does well is dispense interesting facts and tidbits without interrupting or displacing the flow of the plot or Marie's development.

Contrasting sharply with the long-held opinion of this Queen, Marie is shown to care for her Austrian subjects (and even her French ones when their own King does not!) as well as generally kind and loving nature. Hints of the troubles Marie will face later on in her noble are present as well; a certain disregard for consequences and rash actions/sayings is prevalent, though perhaps a bit too heavy-handed for my taste. Ms. Grey conveys the thoughts of the noblewoman better when she subtly alludes to Marie's less appealing traits. However, in the world of France, which was governed by the strict Salic law of its time, Marie does quite well in claiming what power she can and using it, all while doing what she can to influence her husband, to future king-to-be and thus a very strong potential ally for her family and home. The extreme disparity of life in the Hofburg, where the royal Hapsburg family was far more relaxed, dressing in far less formal clothing and even playing with 'common' children, the strict and rigid way of life in Bourbon Versailles is a constant reminder of just how out of place Marie feels for most of her teenage and early twenties in France. Constant reminders of how she does not fit in ("l'Autruchienne" being a clever if vulgar pun on the French words for ostrich [Austria] and for bitch) help to keep her off-balance and thus constantly caught between monarchs.

In the end, the novel boiled down to this single question for me: Is this a Marie Antoinette I liked enough to read about for three novels (and if the second two are as large as their 444 page predecessor) and 1350 pages only to have her die at the end? And that answer is a loud YES. While it is not perfect, it IS an enjoyable and new look into one of history's most maligned women. Grey's writing is original and clever enough with familiar material from historical class to make it less learning and more experiencing life as Marie navigates through her life with Louis -- what she has of it left.

The long-lamented state of my towering t-b-r pile is a topic much mentioned throughout this entire blog. If you have noticed that, you've noticed my lack of will power in conjunction. I simply cannot stop myself from buying books. It's an addiction! I went to Boulder this week to see my best friend and I found MY FAVORITE BOOKSTORE EVER. Three stories of hidden bliss, The Boulder Bookstore is stocked with out-of-print, rare, and popular books. Of course I forgot my phone and camera that day, but this wonder of novel proportions is on Pearl Street in Boulder, CO. I highly recommend that you stop by and lose a few hours if you're ever on Pearl.
My haul:

Heartless (The Parasol Protectorate #4) by Gail Carriger
Eyes Like Stars (Théâtre Illuminata,  Act 1) by Lisa Mantchev
City of Ashes (The Mortal Instruments #2) by Cassandra Clare
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Stonewielder (Malazan Empire #3) by Ian C. Esslemont
The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

So, clearly as I predicted, I could not resist Heartless by Gail Carriger. I'm taking notes for an in-depth, glowing review. I simply cannot express how much I love this series and recommend each of them (Souless, Changeless, Blameless). If you've not: READ THEM.

Additionally, how could I not buy this:

So. Pretty. As is the sequel, Perchance to Dream:

EDIT: google is bad and I found the cover for the upcoming Act III: So Silver Bright.

Tell me you don't want to read this series. TELL ME. Cause you are a LIAR.


  1. Omg, I've got giant love all over this post. One, love your review. More on that later. Two, love your book purchases. You're a girl after my own heart. Carriger and Morton?! JOY. Three, how badly do I want to read that Matchev series?! THIS BAD. I hope you love them!

    Okay, back to your review. Yesterday (or maybe the day before), Stephanie Dray tweeted about historical facts versus journey of the heroine when writing hist fict, and it was an interesting reminder to me that hist fict is a story -- and that some people care more for the story than the historical facts. When I know nothing about an era/heroine, then I don't mind if an author is loose and fast with the details (if I enjoy the book) -- sometimes, even if I do know the 'truth', if the novel is compelling, I can forgive.

    I've got BMA in my queue for later this month -- can't wait to dig in.

  2. I love love love Gail Carriger. I read Soulless late last year and that was what really turned me onto steampunk. Or more properly in her case, sTEAmPUNK as I have seen it labelled.

    And I seem to fall between those camps: I want a story but filled with as much accuracy as possible. I really didn't mind the errors in this as I am not a Bourbon/Revolution historian and wouldn't catch the minutiae.

    I can't wait to see what you think of the book!


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