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07 August 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette, by Juliet Grey

Many know the story of Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI. The subject of scores of debates and studies, biographies and a few films, Marie Antoinette's ultimate fate is known to all. While her name conjures romantic images of a French monarchy of old, and the scandals surrounding her name, rarely do we get the glimpse of how the little girl in Austria actually became her.

Juliet Grey's exhaustive research incorporated into her unique debut fiction novel, Becoming Marie Antoinette, in stores this Tuesday, August, 9, does just that. With a new take on her life and simultaneously providing insight into little "Toinette," who at the age of ten, is pronounced the future wife of the eldest heir to the throne of France, Grey turns over the negative assumptions of Marie Antoinette (who really said, "Let them eat cake?) and details extensively the process of turning the young, naive, and fun-loving girl into the very image of a Queen. Although Marie Antoinette does not willingly immerse herself in the joys of reading, the agonizing hours and days of physical transformation are, without question, the toughest. Little is known about the months spent in a contraption that was horrifyingly fixed to her teeth in order to straighten them, or the hours spent to "fix" her head of hair to make more regal, to the point of intense pain. Beauty, in that day and age, was painful, and Grey leaves nothing out.

Merely a child when this process began,  Marie Antoinette's relationships with family are extremely detailed. The cold and calculating Empress of Austria is her mother, constantly fretting over Marie Antoinette's poor education and penmanship, and goes through one tutor after another without success. Her main concern is to ensure that Austria is protected, and to do so, the mother of sixteen children must marry each of her daughters off to leaders of countries who can ultimately benefit their homeland. With that, Marie Antoinette is obligated to France, and Charlotte, her sister and best friend, is sent to become the Queen of Two Sicilies, never to see her little sister again, only to communicate through correspondence. Charlotte's letters regaling the sadness of her marriage to a man she cannot love are touching, and even more so when it is remembered how very young these girls are, mere pawns in a game of diplomacy.

Age 13, portrait presented to Louis XVI before meeting
Juliet Grey also takes a different tack to validate a unique perspective of the relationship between Marie Antoinette and her husband and the suggested reasons on their lack of intimacy. That alone is much to handle for Marie Antoinette, but combined with her attempts to remove herself from scandals and gossip, it becomes even more overwhelming. These are events which are difficult to endure as an adult, much less a teenager. All to  ensure that national affairs were in order. Who could expect a young girl and boy to truly understand the consequences of their actions, particularly as it comes to leading a country?

The letters, though, between her and her sister, Charlotte, virtually disappears after Marie Antoinette is married. Although it was mentioned through the narrative that they continued to write to each other, it was a surprising absence to not include what they might have been like after both were finally married. It would have been interesting to see what the written conversations could have been between Marie Antoinette and Charlotte, especially since now they could compare the differences in their wedded intimate lives. After all, Charlotte had already shared how disgusted she was by her husband, but Marie Antoinette was completely denied intimacy with hers. What an interesting conversation that could have been between the two sisters if a letter or two after Marie Antoinette was married were included. It seemed odd that it didn't crop up at all in the book.

But, Grey is a passionately descriptive writer. Passages easily paint the picture of the times and evoke a sense of history and the flourishing period intrigue, along with startling refreshing moments that display the internal conflict a young girl would have on becoming this future Queen. In this paragraph detailing her travels from Austria to her new country, Grey accomplishes the beauty of the moment, along with the fear of the unknown:
I felt bad, as the cobbles they had carpeted with spring flowers were now being heedlessly trod upon by hundreds of horses. Eager faces pressed forward to see me, eyes shining, cheeks rosy and flushed with excitement. An elderly man, violin tucked beneath his chin, serenaded me from an iron balcony. Regaining my poise as Maman would have wished, I smiled and waved to everyone, especially the little children who skipped alongside the coaches with posies in their hands. They would never see how frightened I was; never know that my stomach was tumbling like an acrobat and that I was drowning in a sea of perfume and perspiration that trickled from my hairline down the back of my neck toward the yellow ruching on my gown. (p.177)
In reading the Author's Note at the end, I discovered that this was book one in a trilogy, so the ending is not empty but instead gives an eerie promise of more to come, which makes sense. And although I am interested to read more about this historical figure's life from Juliet Grey's research, I must admit that (although I realize there is so much story to tell with Marie Antoinette) I wish trilogies were not so in fashion now. It might just be me, but it seems as though every book out now is only the first of three and I sort of miss the days when the story was told all in one.

Recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction, particularly French history, and Marie Antoinette.

About the Author
Juliet Grey has extensively researched European royal history and is a particular devotee of Marie Antoinette.  She and her husband divide their time between New York City and southern Vermont.

Many thanks to TLC Book Tours for giving me the opportunity to read this book. Upcoming tour stops can be found by clicking here.


  1. I know what you mean about the current trilogy trend. It is so hard to find the time, sigh!!
    Great review, as usual.

  2. Great review, Natalie. I saw Anna's book review on this one last week and I'm excited to read it. I've actually got a copy so just need to find the time!

  3. I know what you mean about trilogies - it's so hard to keep up with all of them. It sounds like this one's worth reading, though.

  4. I know very little about Marie Antoinette except the basics and what I learned from the Kristen Dunst movie. I don't read historical fiction that often but always enjoy it when I do and I'm thinking I would like this one. Whenever I hear something is a trilogy I find myself wanting to read it lol!

  5. Huh...I never would've guessed that they had braces in the 18th century.

  6. ooh - I'll check this out. I love Marie Antoinette. She's so tragic to me.

    And I agree re: trilogies. I love a good serial, but groups of 3 are played out now.

  7. Seriously a butt-load of pressure on a ten year old, no? Good Lord. Hey if you want to listen to an incredible audio that includes some parts about the French Revolution, get Jennifer Donnelly's "Revolution". It will be one of the best audios of the year for me I think.

  8. BookQuoter - I just wish a book was told all at once. I'm fine with a 600 page or more book. If the story is engaging, let's put it all in one book. I know publishing companies love the trilogies in order to spread their profits out, but...I just hate waiting a year for the next book.

    Iliana - Looking forward to your thoughts on it!!

    bermudaonion - I recommend this book, so definitely let me know if you get a chance to read it!

    Jenny - Take another stab with historical fiction, it is engaging, and I find I'm swallowed up in it much more lately!

    softdrink - I know, right? The description of how they were attached just seemed so painful, too.

    Emily - Marie Antoinette is certainly that - tragic. If you get a chance to read it, let me know what you think!

    Sandy - I have Revolution in print, but am searching around for a next audio to download, and my finger is hovering over the "buy" button on iTunes...! And I recall your review of it, so it's been hard to debate with myself on whether I should read it or if I should listen to it! :)

  9. I just got this book for review, and I am really excited about it. It sounds like it's an excellent read, and really delves deeply into the back story of Marie from a very young age. I can't wait to get to this one now, and have to admit that your review kept me captivated! Thanks for sharing this review, this seems like a book that I am going to love, but like you, I sort of hate trilogies!

  10. Oh, this one sounds really good. I haven't read many books on Marie Antoinette. A trilogy sounds appealing. Your review was wonderful!

  11. Really would like to get my hands on this book at some point. Aside from the cheesy cover, I'm interested to see how it plays!

  12. I've always had a soft spot for MA -- I'm really looking forward to this one.

  13. I so want to read this one. I loved Antonia Fraser's excellent biography of her, and it will be fun to read her story from a fiction angle too. Great review!

  14. I am so with you on the trilogy thing, Natalie! I just finished another book that was clearly left with a cliffhanger for another book. It makes me feel like I'm being manipulated a bit!

    I'm glad this was a good book, though, and have put it on my TBR.

  15. I would really love to read this, I think she's such a fascinating character I'd love to know more about her. I don't mind a trilogy so long as the story is really complex enough to carry it. I suppose her story is - a lot happened from her childhood to her execution!

  16. Yep - I think twice before starting a series. There are just too many trilogies this season :)

    I think I will like this one as I really haven't read anything like this before.

  17. I am getting tired of trilogies too. I like to wait until they are all published before reading any of them so I can read them one after the other. This does sound like an interesting story. It's definitely a different look at MA. Great review!

  18. I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Thanks for this wonderful review. I have to agree about the trilogy trend - but I'm looking forward to seeing how Grey takes on the rest of MA's life.

  19. I really don't know much about MA. I guess that means I should pick up this book! It's always fun being introduced to a historical figure through historical fiction, I think. The trilogy thing... I guess it is becoming a trend - and a time consuming one, at that. Maybe it'll be a good series, though! Enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  20. Regarding the recent trend of trilogies - I completely agree with you. With some books especially I feel like the ending could have been wrapped neatly, but was instead left open merely for the purpose of a sequel. Which wouldn't be so bad, but I keep thinking it has more to do with making money and less to do with artfully telling a story.

  21. I really liked this one too. So fascinating and from a point of view that was terrific. Having visited Versailles, it was fun to read about it as it once was!

    And the trilogy thing? I really don't mind it. What I do mind is waiting a year between books. That is what drives me crazy. It's unnecessary and frustrating.

    2 Kids and Tired Books

  22. I have been hoping to squeeze this novel in over the next few months, but I must agree with your comments over trilogies, and, I also include most, not all, sequels.
    Years ago when I read "The Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon I absolutely loved it! Later when I found that other books would follow, I swore them off. I did not want my feelings changed toward the first book.
    And Alyce, I agree with your comments about "making money" rather than "artfully telling a story"!

  23. Amazing review. I really can't wait to read this one and your review makes me look forward to it even more, if that's possible!

  24. I can't wait to read this one myself - her life has always fascinated me.

    Thanks for being on the tour Natalie!

  25. I want to read this. I've been looking up books to read around the French Revolution - a period of history that grabs me, and this one did come up. It's on my Amazon wish list...

    Definitely look forward to comparing notes.


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