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Juliet Grey – Becoming Marie Antoinette

August 8, 2011

100. Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey (2011)

Length: 464 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

Started: 21 July 2011
Finished: 30 July 2011

Where did it come from? From Ballantine Books for review.
Why do I have it? I saw the ad in Shelf Awareness and thought it had been a while since my last book about the French Revolution.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 16 May 2011.

Being born in a
royal court does not mean you’re
ready to be Queen.

Summary: Everyone knows who Marie Antoinette was, but how many people know the story of how she became one of the pivotal figures of the French Revolution? Born an princess to the Hapsburg Empress of Austria, she was a happy, free-spirited child. When her mother began negotiations with France for her marriage to the dauphin, however, the 12-year-old Antonia had to put her childhood behind her and start proving herself worthy of being the future Queen of France – a process that involved arduous hours of fixing her teeth and hair, learning a new language and how to walk in her new clothes, and mastering the manners and pastimes of a new court. And even once that preparation was complete and the marriage was accomplished, she was still a very young girl in a foreign land, facing hostility and manipulation from all sides… with a husband, the future king, who mysteriously refused to consummate their marriage, despite its vital importance to both their countries that she bear him a son.

Review: While, in a lot of respects, this book is very solid and enjoyable historical fiction, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations of it. On the good side, it’s well-written, and Grey does an excellent job of bringing Marie Antoinette to life as a real and – if not quite relatable – certainly sympathetic narrator, instead of a mere caricature of a fancy dress and enormous hairdo. I also learned quite a bit about her childhood, much of it totally fascinating (although: man, 1760s orthodontia, no thank you!), and really got a good feel for how she fit into the Versailles court (or didn’t, as the case may be.)

My main problem was the limited time span covered by the book, and consequently how abruptly it ended. This book is the first of three planned biographical novels, and while the death of Louis XV seems like a natural break in the storyline – marking Marie’s transition from dauphine to Queen – it left a lot of plot threads unresolved, most noticeably the cause and and outcome of Marie’s continuing virginal status, which was a major theme in the back half of the book. The ending left me wanting more, not in the sense of being eager to dive into the sequel, but in the sense that I felt like a more complete story could have been packed into the preceding 400 pages. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: I think fans of novels about the French Revolution – and of historical fiction more generally – will enjoy this one, as long as they bear in mind that it’s not the whole story.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: My mother liked to boast that her numerous daughters were “sacrifices to politics.”

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 242: “Yes to my maître d’hôtel, or chamberlain, and yes to the equerries.” – an officer of a royal or similar household, charged with the care of the horses.
  • p. 321: “It dawned on me that the furious movement was not a signal to me, but to someone standing behind me, so I turned ever so slightly to regard my ladies – and there was Madame Campan, with the white linen lappets of her cap still pinned to the crown of her head.” – a small lap, flap, or loosely hanging part, especially of a garment or headdress.
  • p. 331: “Madame Victoire crooked a plump finger and beckoned me to sit before her on the low upholstered tabouret.” – a low seat without back or arms, for one person; stool.
  • p. 351: “A cercle was just breaking up; and the capacious chamber, with its delicate whiteboiserie molding enhancing equally creamy walls, resembled a hothouse of exotic and fragrant blooms – suffused with the scents of orange blossom and rosewater, frangipani and jasmine, lilac and lily of the valley.” – sculptured paneling, especially that of French architecture in the 18th century.
  • p. 419: “At Versailles, I played lansquenet into the wee hours of the morning, fortified by orangeade; by day I immersed myself in our amateur theatricals.” – a card game.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011 10:41 am

    Even when I read a series, I much, much prefer to have all of the books on my shelves waiting for me so I don’t have to wait for the new release, so I can imagine how frustrated I would be by a book that is simply the first third of what is technically one book. I do find Marie Antoinette fascinating though, and I love the idea of reading about her childhood.

    • August 9, 2011 11:15 am

      Trisha – That’s my preferred way to read series as well. I think that knowing from the start that this is just a portrait of Marie Antoinette’s childhood & years as the dauphine might make the abrupt ending less of a big deal, so if you’re interested, give it a try!

  2. August 8, 2011 10:43 am

    I liked this one but it did leave a lot hanging. It didn’t bother me too much knowing it was a trilogy going in though. I have a soft spot for this time period so I’m pretty sure I’ll be reading the next two.

    • August 9, 2011 11:17 am

      Amy – I do like the time period, but I’m still undecided as to whether I’m going to read the sequels. Although the author note at the back hinted that Grey has come up with a new theory as to what’s wrong with Louis, and I am pretty damn curious to find out what she thinks it was.

  3. August 8, 2011 2:48 pm

    Trilogies seem to be the way to go these days, so I’m not surprised the story has been divided like that. It sounds interesting enough that I’d be willing to give it a go.

    • August 9, 2011 11:19 am

      Kathy – Trilogies are everywhere, it’s true, although I usually encounter them much more in fantasy than in historical fiction.

  4. August 9, 2011 8:43 am

    I was a bit disappointed to learn it was first in a trilogy when I picked up, but I think that made me more willing to accept that loose ends. I really enjoyed this book because I knew next to nothing about Marie Antoinette when I started it, but now I’m sad that I have to wait so long for the next two books.

    • August 9, 2011 11:22 am

      Anna – Have you read Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud? I read it earlier this year and thought it was great, and it provided a really good overview of the French Revolution. Might be something to tide you over while you wait for the sequels?

  5. August 9, 2011 7:23 pm

    Have you read (you probably have if you like the period) Victoria Holt’s book about Marie Antoinette, The Queen’s Confession? I had to read it in school and didn’t love it, which is partly due to the reading it for school thing and partly to the fact that this isn’t a time period I love. But it was well-written and very atmospheric. It felt like the past, if that makes any sense!

    • August 15, 2011 10:04 am

      Jenny – I have not read it! I like the period but only really started reading books set during the French Revolution a few years ago, so I’m not particularly well-versed in the oodles of relevant historical fiction that’s out there. I’ll keep an eye out for this one!

  6. August 9, 2011 11:29 pm

    I am rather curious about this book. I will probably read it at some point.

    • August 15, 2011 10:06 am

      Kailana – If you do, I’d love to hear what you think!

  7. August 11, 2011 2:05 am

    I’m incredibly interested in reading this one since it covers one of my favorite time periods – and also the one I’m studying. It’s in the mail and I can’t wait to seek my teeth into it, though now I’m thinking I might let it rest a little : I hate when a book in a series ends abruptly and I don’t have the next one!

    • August 15, 2011 10:11 am

      kay – I usually hate that too, but I think I might hate that less when it comes to historical fiction vs. sci-fi/fantasy, since if I forget the plot in between HF books (especially HF based on real people), I can get back up to speed via Wikipedia. :)


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