Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: The Queen's Lover

The Queen's Lover: A Novel by Francine Du Plessix Gray (New York: Penguin Press, 2012. 259 pp).

Francine du Plessix Gray (b. 1930) is a Pulitzer-prize-nominated writer and literary critic. She is most known for her works, Them: A Memoir of Parents, and At Home with the Marquis De Sade: A Life. For the former, she received the National Book Critics Circle Award.

High Society Problems

When I was in high school, we, as a class, were forced to read the dreaded Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I didn’t connect with the book at all, and didn’t care to. I never liked the novel because it was both dry and boring in my opinion. I didn’t care enough of aristocratic high society problems to even give the novel a chance. Similarly, The Queen's Lover by Francine Due Plessix Gray explores some of those same problems in a work of historical fiction, and I found myself running into the same problems I had with Pride and Prejudice.

A Masquerade

Told in memoir-type format, the novel reads more like a journal—so realistic I found myself wondering how much of it was true. The Queen’s Lover begins at a masquerade ball in Paris in 1774, where Swedish nobleman Axel Von Fersen meets a dashing young woman.
Photo by Mark Sebastian
“My new friend also had grown aware, quite suddenly, of the band that had gathered about her; and without saying good-bye, as impulsively as she had begun our conversation, she wheeled around and swiftly walked away, briefly lifting the gray velvet mask off her face with an exasperated gesture, as if it were smothering her and she needed to inhale a deep breath of air. It was in that split second that I realized who she was—that I recognized her as Marie Antoinette, Archduchess of Austria-Hungary, beloved daughter of the mighty Empress Maria Theresa, and now the wife of the notoriously timid, reclusive Dauphin Louis-Auguste, who might at any moment become the king of France” (16).
An Affair and a Revolution

Photo by Panoramas
Marie Antoinette soon becomes Queen of France, and the encounter at the masquerade ball launches a life-long affair spanning the course of the French Revolution. Fersen, through his ties with Antoinette, becomes close with King Louis XVI, and the entire royal family. Fersen would like nothing more than to stay at the side of his beloved Marie-Antoinette, but the American Revolution tears him away. He is one of the first to enlist in France’s group of militiamen to fight for America’s independence. Much changes while Fersen is gone, as in 1789 the Bastille is stormed. At this point in the novel, it read less like the dry Pride and Prejudice of my youth, and more like exciting historical fiction. 

The revolutionaries hate the king,
“He was indeed witnessed to have eaten, for breakfast alone, four veal cutlets, a chicken, a plateful of ham, half a dozen eggs, and a bottle and a half of champagne. It is at this point that the king’s enemies began to refer to him as ‘the fat pig’” (79).
However, Fersen provides a different portrait of the king, Fersen shows the king to be loving and compassionate, and holds deep affection for his lover Antoinette's husband. As a result of this compassion, Fersen devises an escape for the family and their young children (who are suspected to be Fersen’s children). The attempt, however, fails, and Fersen is forced into captivity while he waits for the King and Queen to face the guillotine.  

While the novel started out in aristocratic, high-fashioned prose akin to that of the famed Jane Austen novel, I found that The Queen's Lover ended up being much more dramatic, more exciting, and more riveting for me in the end. Francine Due Plessix Gray did a fantastic job writing a memoir of historical fiction, where it was believable in every way.  She did so well crafting the novel that I may even give Jane Austen a second chance.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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