Versailles by Kathryn Davis

This is an historical, experimental, and poetical novel, one version of the story of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France (b.1755-d.1793), of “let them eat cake” infamy. The action is often set as though it is a stage play, with chapters that begin with setting the scene, and then dialogue between characters. We are watching a play. We have the chance to “see” the French royal court historical figures from the mid- to late eighteenth century in all their finery and humanity. We are aware of Marie Antoinette’s end, but the book brings to us her complicated life. Was she a misunderstood teenager or a woman of loose morals or a reckless spendthrift? Some chapters are written from the first person perspective of Antonia (Antoinette). We begin to know some of the emotional conflicts she experienced, how confused she must have felt leaving her home in the Austrian Hapsburg court. The novel and the historical accounts tell us that she was largely unaware of the political reality around her. Kathryn Davis brings Antoinette’s thoughts to life in an extraordinary way: she has Antoinette sometimes use a first person voice, and at other times refers to herself in the third person. In Versailles, Marie Antoinette grapples with existential problems that feel very contemporary. It makes for a very interesting and arresting read. For example:
“My soul thought she’d be happy, and then, one day, she’d die.
But, die.
What does this mean?
One day Antoinette will not exist, though her soul continues to flourish.

Of course, much of the novel is about the palace itself. It lives and breathes and dies as surely as the people who inhabit it. We learn about how and why it was built, some of the modifications that were made, and why it was important in the history of the French Revolution. It comes alive in these pages.

Kathryn Davis’ writing is subtle and honest and full of fancy. Versailles has much to recommend it: the complex and modern writing juxtaposed with the 18th century French Revolution, the glamour and richness of the court and the realities of daily life, and the beauty of the palace. Ms. Davis has won several writing prizes and is a writer in residence at Washington University in St. Louis. Her other novels include The Walking Tour and The Thin Place.

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