Friday, October 7, 2011

Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

Becoming Marie Antoinette. Juliet Grey. Random House Publishing Group. August 2011. 480 pp. paperback. ISBN #: 9780345523860.

Marie Antoinette's life began as the youngest archduchess of Austria, her mother, Maria Teresa, the Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and Austria. Madam Antonia, as she is known until her marriage, is expected to excel in all academic subjects as well as social skills. For her mother is planning to unite the fortunes of Austria and France by wedding her daughter to the Dauphin, the son of King Louis XV. But Madame Antonia is just beginning her teen years when she discovers how she is to be remade in her mother's image of what a French Queen should be! Juliet Grey does a fine, fine job of conveying the stark and boring quality of this life by combining it with Marie's vivacious and humorous nature. If she keeps her spunk, a fine Queen she will be!

The novel proceeds with the reader receiving descriptions of wondrous clothing, meals, and landscapes in Marie's childhood world, broken by the devastating death of one sibling and departure of another to be Queen in another land. Slowly but surely, Marie realizes her role in life is to obey her mother and satisfy every demand for the sake of Austria. It's a heavy burden and one that prevents rebellion, given the alternative destiny of a break with France and more wars that accomplish nothing but death and destruction.

An amazing ceremony occurs when Marie is finally wed by proxy and travels through Austria into France. There she discovers a dauphin who is phenomenally shy and totally uninterested in touching Marie, let alone consummating their marriage. In the light of the King's flagrant flaunting of his mistress and other "loose" behavior occurring in the King's court, this quandary is irksome but then soon changes to sympathy and actual liking of the Dauphin. For he is a "man of the people" in his heart and mind and totally uninterested in the boring, garish world of the elite, a fascinating characterization given what was the norm of royal behavior at the time, completely and elaborately described in these pages. Lovers of fashion and style can immerse themselves in pages of haute French couture and cuisine of the 18th Century French court.

Marie and her husband evolve into sympathetic characters but not without their detractors, as Marie begins to spurn court etiquette, threatening a way of luxury and splendor for the entire French court but endearing the young couple to the reader and common people.

The novel ends on a hopeful note, where the Dauphin becomes King Louis XVI and Marie becomes the Queen of France. Each has a vision full of charity and benefit for the French people, the fulfillment of which will be presented in two forthcoming novels about their life. Juliet Grey's initial novel about the cursed Queen is quite innocent yet revealing. A young girl is forced to grow up fast and become the perfect "Queen," a sacrifice to politics as her mother would admit frequently. Her training is her childhood, one that terrorizes her more with fearful anticipation of failure than actual events that will someday be her nemesis. Etiquette is all and impression is everything! The machinations of a French court full of fawning and deception creates an atmosphere of distrust that is the norm rather than the exception, one that Marie herself sometimes exacerbates.

Congratulations, Ms. Grey, on your fine fictional account of this very real, audacious world and the transformation of a naive, unsure girl into a formidable worldly leader! Superbly done!

Lamb by Bonnie Nadzam

Lamb. Bonnie Nadzam. Other Press, LLC. September 2011. 288 pp. paperback. ISBN #: 9781590514375.

David Lamb is a middle-aged man disappointed in life, having recently been asked to take a long break from his job, suffered the death of his father, and having failed in a romantic relationship. So he's got a lot of pent-up hurt and anger inside; at least that's how it feels to the reader. It's not too long before the reader realizes he or she is not breathing often with fear and puzzlement. For David Lamb initially decides to teach 11 year-old Tommie a lesson when she, while her friends are watching, sashays up to him and asks for a cigarette. How he does it is shocking and mind-numbing, eliciting from the reader frantically passing questions about his sanity and her audacity. This is the pace and tone that unremittingly flows in the following pages.

Nadzam has presented what would be a character study of an innocent man trying to simply respond to life as it appears, to find some sense of normalcy in life. Giving something of that nature to Tommie is how David sees something valuable he has to offer. However, kidnapping an 11 year-old girl and rationalizing his way into her life as providing some love and stability, given the lack of some in her own background and present family life, is debatable and never quite convincing as the reader's mind keeps thinking this is all wrong and rather perverse, albeit not overtly so sexually.

Off they travel to the West where David seeks to introduce Tommie to the wild and free wilderness or camp life that turns out to be quite different from what both expect! His girlfriend even manages to show up and become a temporary part of this "family." David says it best, "There is a small person inside of him wishing to tell Tommie all about it and then another person inside of him crushing the wishes like empty beer cans against a cinder-block wall." But still he tries, knowing he will return Tommie to her mother. As their journey proceeds, other memories keep interfering with his plan and make him say things wise, foolish and confusing to Tommie's young ears. At the same time, this is more attention and care than Tammy's parents have given her in her entire life. Perhaps a glimpse inside this complex man or would-be Daddy (and more?) will touch this young girl's life in a positive way forever? Will she ultimately love or hate David long after she returns home? Read and decide!

Lamb is not a novel to like or dislike. It is a thriller that is more about inner thoughts and feelings, about communicating same to another hungry to hear and feel worthy of attention. It makes the reader begin to fully ponder the depth of character in humanity, not easily definable and yet more worthy because of the effort to understand and let the complexity lie as it is without judgment. Lamb is a risky but gripping read for sure!