Marie Antoinette has long been a favorite character of mine in historical fiction. There’s the French court, the elaborate pomp and circumstance, and the setting --- Versailles. In BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE, Juliet Grey takes us past the court window dressings, introducing us to a young girl struggling to fit in and be someone much more French than her Austrian roots allow.
"While this Marie Antoinette isn’t the refined and glamorous woman of most historical fiction, she’s certainly a lovable character, most of which is due to her age."
The Austrian court is a quiet refuge for a young Maria Antonia, the youngest daughter of the empress. She has a lot of freedom and, never having been much of a scholar, does her best to avoid every lesson. When she’s told she’ll be marrying the Dauphin of France, Louis Auguste, she spends her days dreaming of marriage and children. However, she fails to understand that her future marriage is more than a simple arrangement; it will be the culmination of a treaty between the Austrian empress and the French king. Her days spent dreaming in the garden are over. Her mother, knowing she needs to impress not only the French ambassador but eventually the French king, his court and the country’s people, begins Maria Antonia’s education again, with a decided slant towards making her not just appear French.
Understanding for the first time the gravity of her marriage, Maria Antonia takes everything seriously --- from learning to endure French hairstyles and clothing to performing the Versailles glide, a way of walking through the halls of the palace. When her wedding plans are finally announced, the young daydreamer has been transformed into a woman who may not entirely understand her new role, but is willing to try. Anxious to finally meet her husband, she does her best to make a good impression on everyone she encounters during her journey. When she finally arrives, more changes await her, the least of which is being stripped of everything Austrian to be replaced completely with French versions, including her name --- Maria Antonia becomes Marie Antoinette.
Determined to be nothing if not loved, Marie Antoinette makes it her duty to impress her husband, the king and the court. Unfortunately, not everyone finds her alluring --- especially her new husband. A quiet man of few words, she can’t figure out how to get through to him, and the rumors of a virginal marriage bed begin to haunt her. With no place to find solace in a court constantly full of gossiping, curious courtiers, she attempts to understand the man who is now her husband.
What’s so interesting about this particular story is that we meet a young Marie Antoinette who has no head for academics but is able to make just about everyone love her. She’s fun, and while she knows her freedom won’t last, she’s resigned to making the best of it. While this Marie Antoinette isn’t the refined and glamorous woman of most historical fiction, she’s certainly a lovable character, most of which is due to her age. And while you may know what’s coming her way, she seems blissful, at least to a certain point. It’s when she comes to understand the difficulties that lay ahead that readers will not only like her, but feel for her. A foreign archduchess, she is not looked upon kindly and realizes there are few she can trust in her new home.
The relationship with Louis has its poignant moments and, frankly, some embarrassing ones. But you also see two young adults attempting to figure out what’s expected of them and how they plan to live up to those expectations. Finding that they love each other along the way lends sweetness to a story that easily can be trounced on by an overbearing French court. There are a few places where I did wish for less information, as Grey has obviously done her research, but overall those moments don’t cause harm. In many ways, this is a coming-of-age story, but it’s also full of some interesting characters you don’t want to let go of even at the end. This is good, since BECOMING MARIE ANTOINETTE is the first in a planned trilogy.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on August 18, 2011