Monday, May 14, 2012
The Queen's Lover
Author: Francine du Plessix Gray
Pub Date: June 14, 2012
About the author: Francine du Plessix Gray has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker and is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction, including Simone Weil, At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life, Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants, and Soviet Women. She is most recently the author of the memoir Them: A Memoir of Parents. She lives in Connecticut.
What it’s about: The Queen's Lover begins at a masquerade ball in Paris in 1774, when the dashing Swedish nobleman Count Axel von Fersen first meets the mesmerizing nineteen-year-old Dauphine, Marie Antoinette. This electric encounter launches a lifelong romance that will span the course of the French Revolution.
The affair begins in friendship, however, and Fersen quickly becomes a devoted companion to the entire royal family. As he roams the halls of Versailles and visits the private haven of Le Petit Trianon, Fersen discovers the deepest secrets of the court. But the events of the American Revolution tear Fersen away. Moved by the cause, he joins French troops in the fight for American independence. When he returns, he finds France on the brink of disintegration. After the Revolution of 1789 the royal family is moved from Versailles to the Tuileries. Fersen devises an escape for the family and their young children. The failed attempt leads to a more grueling imprisonment, and the family spends its excruciating final days captive before the King and Queen meet the guillotine.
Grieving his lost love in his native Sweden, Fersen begins to sense the effects of the French Revolution in his homeland. Royalists are now targets, and the sensuous world of his youth is fast vanishing. Fersen is incapable of realizing that centuries of tradition have disappeared, and he pays dearly for his naïveté, losing his life at the hands of a savage mob that views him as a pivotal member of the aristocracy. Scion of Sweden's most esteemed nobility, Fersen came to be seen as an enemy of the country he loved. His fate is symbolic of the violent speed with which the events of the eighteenth century transformed European culture. Expertly researched and deeply imagined, The Queen's Lover is a fresh vision of the French Revolution and the French royal family as told through the love story that was at its center.
My thoughts: Ever since I heard that this novel was being published, I couldn't wait to read it, so when I saw that it was featured on TLC Book Tours, I begged for the chance to review it. As anyone who reads this blog know, I share a birthday with Marie Antoinette, so I'm a sucker for a novel that is about her or features her as a character. I can say that I was not disappointed. The Queen's Lover is one of the best historical fiction books that I have read this year. Told from the viewpoints of Axel von Fersen and his sister Sophie, the novel offers a unique take of the story of Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. Of course, von Fersen is not a disinterested observer, due to his deep love not just for Marie Antoinette but for the whole French royal family.
The beauty of this novel is that we not only get to know Marie Antoinette through Axel's eyes, but we also get to know Fersen on a deeper level than I've seen in a novel before. One of the more enjoyable things about the novel is that we get to experience not just the French court but the Swedish court of Gustavus III Adolphus. The differences between the extravagance and the decadence of the French court and the austerity of the Swedish Court is striking, although there are similarities in that both the Swedish King and Marie Antoinette loved theatricals and balls!
There is going to be a certain segment who are going to dislike this novel without even reading it, simply because it suggests that Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen consummated their relationship, that the book is called The Queen's Lover. However, the book is so much more than the love affair, platonic or not between the two. The book is more about how swiftly events moved in the late 18th century, and how one wrong move tumbled the whole house of cards. The style of the writing will also not be for everyone, it's a little bit old-fashioned, more reminiscent of the late Jean Plaidy's novels.
Of course there are events in the book that Fersen and Sophie didn't experience first hand. Remarkably du Plessix Gray manages to make those sections just as thrilling as those that Fersen experienced first hand. The last section of the book is the saddest as Fersen tries to find some meaning in his life after the tragic events of 1793. Fersen isn't afraid to reveal to the reader his flaws, his need for women, his aloofness that leads to his downfall.
Verdict: A deeply heartfelt and tragic novel about some of the most tumultous events in the 19th century