Kathryn Davis

"Versailles"

(reviewed by Cindy Lynn Speer JAN 11, 2004)

"My soul is going on a trip. I want to talk about her. I want to talk about her. Why would anyone ever want to talk about anything else?

My soul is a girl: she is just like me. She is fourteen years old and has been promised in marriage to the French Dauphin, who also has a soul though more visible and worldly, its body already formed (so I've been told) from layers of flesh and fat. In France they piss into chamber pots made of lapis and dine on common garden slugs. In France their hands smell like vanilla and they shoot their flèches d'amour indiscriminately in all directions, owing to their taste for books pernicious to religion and morals."

Read excerptI have been fascinated with Marie Antoinette (called just Antoinette in this book) for years. Why did she say that ignominious line, "Let them eat cake?" Was it meanness, carelessness, or innocence? This curiousity lead me to read Victoria Holt's The Queen's Confession, which, like a confession, deals with everything, explaining the reasons for the different evils that have been laid at her feet, telling the truth behind the lies. Not like this book, in which Kathryn Davis' Antoinette is not always that forthcoming. Concerned more with reliving her life than justifying it, her ghost often refuses to answer our more puerile curiosities, such as when she talks about her beloved Axel, who was said to have been her lover; she says, "Were we sexually intimate? What difference could it possibly make to you?"

Instead of an historical narrative that concentrates on telling the facts of the story, in Versailles we have a piece that concentrates on the beauty and essence of the story. It is historically accurate without a doubt, and gives, I think, more details about the people and how they lived than you sometimes get in other books. It's lovely and well done, but Versailles is as a different from a straight forward historical novel as a short story is from a poem.

I am reluctant to say this because other reviewers have called it an aria, but the fact that it is an operatic work is inescapable. Lush scenes, the descriptions of Versailles in particular, of the gardens, of the gates, of the marble floors, would rival the sets of even the opera houses that live in dreams. Odd little historical facts, such as the fact that the previous Louis used to walk along the roof and call down chimney flues to his guests add humanity as well as spice to the history. Plays separate the chapters, giving us much more information even as they mirror the plays of that time period...and often serve to tell us what's going on outside of Antoinette's first hand experience, the things that will lead to her downfall. Even the chapters are set like scenes from a play, vignettes of her life, the stories that she longs to tell us, the things she doesn't want to be forgotten.

Do we feel bad for her? Oh, yes. Does she want us to? Certainly not.

What she wants, I think, this ghost who dwelt in marble halls, is to celebrate what she had. To tell us about who she was, in her soul, not the person that gossips and historians want us to know. To remind us of a time when a king who would rather have been a locksmith and a queen who would rather had lead a simple life in her Austrian homeland made the best of what they had, tried to be decent, tried to be good, but were victims, themselves, of bad times and bad politics.

Very real, very tragic and very beautiful, this rich story introduces us to an Antoinette who will live on forever, if only in the dreams of what once was.
  • Amazon readers rating: from 17 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Versailles at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Kathryn DavisKathryn Davis is the recipient of a Kafka Prize for fiction by an American woman and the 1999 Morton Dauwen Zabel Award, American Academy of Arts and Letters. Davis teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York and lives with her husband and daughter in Vermont.

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