Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

Oh, I have been reading so sloooooow lately!

I wonder if I should blame this on the book I read in April, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. She advocates slow reading in order to distill how a book is written and put together. I just can’t seem to gobble down books like I used to. What takes me two weeks to read has now gone into a month, maybe month in a half. In some cases, like Disturbances in the Field, it was agonizing.

But in case of the book I just finished, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette, there was no way I could rush through this book. This is a book meant to be savored.

I’ve always been fascinated with Marie Antoinette. Naslund says at the end of the book that it’s like “a reverse fairy tale–not a story about a deserving poor girl who became a princess but…a princess who lost her position and power, even her life.” I’ve seen Antoinette’s story in anime form, with the Rose of Versailles, and I’ve seen it in movie form with Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (and that shot of the blue converse sneaker in among all her other shoes is probably the most jarring shot in a movie I’ve ever seen–and what really endeared the movie to me).

So I was quite pleased to enjoy this tale in book form, and Naslund does not disappoint. The entire book is an exercise of luxury, written from Marie’s perspective. If she kept a diary, I’ve no doubt it would be similar to the style in Naslund’s book. I had to keep reminding myself that while the events that occurred was true, the words are fiction.

Despite that, I was drawn into Marie’s world. Interesting that three of the books I’ve read this year dealt with court life–this one was probably the most idyllic. Part of that is due to Naslund’s characterization of Marie–a woman who is drawn to beauty in everything she sees, including her own self. At the beginning of the story, as she steps out of her Austrian clothes to put on French clothes and her new French identity, for instance, she focuses on her toenail touching the last part of her Austrian past:

“It is the littlest toenail of the most little toe on the left foot that lastly brushes the fabric of the House of Hapsburg. All my being rushes into this insignificant toenail, not so big as a shiny sequin or a flake of trout skin. My toenail is like the loop on the letter e at the end of a word: Dauphine. Auf Wiedersehen–my little toenail whispers to the silk. To think, that it is the tiniest toenail so honored, the last part of me tangent to home!”

Yes, Marie is certainly fixated on herself and her happiness, a flaw that Naslund makes apparent often with her fascination of how she looks, her sudden (and sometimes overwhelming) interest in people that make her happy; and the just as sudden weariness of them. But she also has a love for all things sensual–not in a sexual sense, but things that invoke all of her senses (only one chapter bends this rule: ‘A bath, 18 August 1777’. It’s probably the only time when Neslund’s writing truly does border on the erotic, with delightful results–for Marie, that is). She finds luxury in everything from a diamond bracelet with the initials “M. A.”, to the simple desire of having two apples in a blue bowl. That the bowl has to be blue shows how the desire of beauty is interwoven deep in her. That it is apples she crave shows her desire, surprisingly, for simplicity.

Mind, she loves beauty, not indulgence–it’s interesting that when she is under some type of emotion, she can barely eat–preferring to sip a couple spoonfuls of broth over eating lavish dinners. We know that despite her high rank, she preferred Petite Trianon to the larger, more opulent Versailles. Neslund creates delicious bites of Marie’s hunger for beauteous simplicity by the way she focuses on small things: slices of oranges floating in water, the way her skirt rustles and feels as she walks. Neslund lets Marie focus on one sense at a time, letting her enjoyment stem from that particular sensation.

Of course, this is part of Neslund’s Antoinette’s downfall. Her desire for beauty at times is too idyllic, an escape from reality. The book does a good job mirroring the movie (I don’t think Coppola used this book as a basis for her movie–she used a biography written by Lady Antonia Fraser) in that we see Marie always enjoying life, always having parties, making googly eyes at Fersen, not wishing to know about the outside world, or re-enacting what she thinks the outside world is like. The faux village she builds so she can pretend to be a shepherdess–I truly doubt the peasants appreciated the fact that the milkjugs were made of porcelain…

At the same time, however, Marie’s focus on beauty distracts her from the anguish of being married at 14, but having her marriage consummated at 23, which we don’t see until midway through the book (and when we finally do see it–I must confess, I said “Yay!” Come on Louis–what is wrong with you?!). Oddly, the love between her and the king is both frustrating and touching. She also has to deal with horrible and escalating rumors about herself (which she naively cannot comprehend why the people of France are mad at her). As she grows older, the real life does intrude into her idyllic life at last, starting with the death of her child.

One thing the book does touch on (and the anime), but not the book, is the affair of the necklace, which Marie wasn’t even implicated in, but helped bring about her downfall. Her bafflement over the whole thing is done very well, and we also begin to see the emergence of a harder Marie, one who begins to have more of an interest in politics, and finds herself to be more shrewd than her less-than-stellar husband. Sadly, it’s too little too late. We get drawn into her downfall, as her surroundings become less opulent as she goes from Versailles to the Tuileries to the Tower. Yet still, she attempts to find beauty in the smallest things.

The ending–and of course I’m not spoiling it; we all know what happened–is still filled with beauty and also with dignity. We still see a Marie still involved with herself as she prepares for death–though this time it is achingly poignant. And we also see a dignity that is surprisingly gracious. Out of the other media I’ve seen about Marie, Neslund takes us right to the gallows, right up to the point where she lays her head on the guillotine’s block. It is very poignant, and that Neslund uses Marie’s actual last words seals it with a tenderness that stayed with me.

(Sadly enough, I was reading the end of the book when my co-worker’s suicide happened. I think that’s another reason why the ending touched me as it
did).

One day, when I have money to spend, I would love to have a place on my bookshelf dedicated to Marie Antoinette. I would put the entire DVD set of Rose of Versailles (which has not been released–yet), the movie Marie Antoinette, and then this book. This gets 5 apples in a blue bowl out of 5, and though Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake,” I heartily say, “Bring it on! and pile on the whipped cream! Lots of it!”

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks! Now I have a new book to look forward to.

  2. […] I’ve always been fascinated by Marie Antoinette; I’ve read her biographies, as well as that wonderful book Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund (which I reviewed) and watching the anime Rose of Versailles. I wrote the poem after watching Marie […]

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