Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Queen's Lover

Several months ago, I read a review of this novel, by Francine Duplessix Gray, that made me interested in reading this book. I have NO idea what the review said, and when my request at the library was fulfilled, and the book became available, I hadn't a clue why I thought I'd be interested in this book.

Well, I must have known what I was doing, because I loved this book! Seriously, when I picked it up from the library and read the inside cover, I almost returned it immediately because I was very worried it was going to be boring. This is a novel about Marie Antoinette. The title character is Axel von Fersen, a Swedish noble who spent most of his adult life in France. He and the Queen engaged in an affair, though this book is mostly the story of the French Revolution from the perspective of the nobility.

While this book is a novel, most of the characters in the book are real people. The book's format alternates between diary entries written by Axel and those written by his sister, Sophie. She provides a lot of important background information and addresses some of the more difficult topics, like Marie Antoinette's execution. These journal entries, coupled with some letters, are based on actual collections maintained by the French and Swedish governments. Though I majored in French in college, I've always felt that my understanding of the French Revolution was pretty minimal - sometimes, I'm surprised they let me graduate with the major given how little I understand it. I absolutely learned a lot when I read this book, and I bet you would too! Nonetheless, I was engaged in the story and read the book in just a few days. While it's not really "plot driven" - since we already know what's going to happen to Marie Antoinette - it was engaging and provided just the right amount of detail.

My favorite aspect of this book was the interesting perspective of a Swede in France, especially during the era of the Revolution. The cultures of these two nations are different in almost every way. While these differences are tough to put into words, this novel reminded me of my experience arriving in France to study abroad after having spent the previous semester in Norway. It was major culture shock. This cultural divide is illustrated mostly in the chapters narrated by Sophie. One example that stays with me now is her description of Paris as super stinky - the city, as well as the people. She mentions the importance of perfume at Marie Antoinette's court to keep people from passing out. Sweden, however, is described as pristine and orderly; the polar opposite of Versailles.  Sweden, like its neighbors Norway and Denmark, has a well-established tradition of a monarchy whose power is strictly circumscribed. This, of course, was a stark contrast to the excesses of the French regime. While these issues were mentioned in the book as a backdrop, probably to show us why it was so enthralling for Axel to remain in France, they really resonated with me.

This book was a fairly quick read, with an engaging story, and brought to life an interesting situation in Western history. I'd highly recommend it!

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