Palace in Wonderland

Running alongside Antoinette's life story is a guided tour of Versailles, a place that owes its existence to the monstrous whims of long-dead kings. For the queen it's both a cocoon and a bell jar; she sometimes imagines the spirits of scheming courtiers and brokenhearted mistresses bouncing around its grand hallways. The palace becomes a lens with which to view the royal decadence and hierarchies of the time, but in the end, Davis uses it mainly as a flamboyant, gorgeously described backdrop. All of her attentions are focused on Antoinette, scolding her just once for her self-absorption: "Was ever a woman so sad, ever a woman so hopeless? Yes, Antoinette, probably all of them, if truth be told. Brave women, stuffing rags in their shoes, foraging for bread in the streets of Paris."

Kathryn Davis gorges herself on language, mixing ornate fantasy with mundane reality
photo: Nancy Crampton
Kathryn Davis gorges herself on language, mixing ornate fantasy with mundane reality

Marie Antoinette's life is a narrative set in stone—punctuated by that final invitation to a beheading—and that makes Versailles less of an adventure than some of Davis's previous novels. But for an inventive writer, even a life as gossiped about and overanalyzed as Antoinette's is still crammed with dark, unanswerable questions that human beings, whether queen or peasant, can't stop asking: "As if it were a mystery, and there were a way to solve it. As if it were possible to figure out who slipped up, and where."

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