Monday, 30 January 2012

Book Review: Becoming Marie Antoinette by Juliet Grey

First published: 9th August 2011
By: Ballantine Books

This enthralling confection of a novel, the first in a new trilogy, follows the transformation of a coddled Austrian archduchess into the reckless, powerful, beautiful queen Marie Antoinette.

Why must it be me? I wondered. When I am so clearly inadequate to my destiny?

Raised alongside her numerous brothers and sisters by the formidable empress of Austria, ten-year-old Maria Antonia knew that her idyllic existence would one day be sacrificed to her mother’s political ambitions. What she never anticipated was that the day in question would come so soon.

Before she can journey from sunlit picnics with her sisters in Vienna to the glitter, glamour, and gossip of Versailles, Antonia must change
everything about herself in order to be accepted as dauphine of France and the wife of the awkward teenage boy who will one day be Louis XVI. Yet nothing can prepare her for the ingenuity and influence it will take to become queen.

Filled with smart history, treacherous rivalries, lavish clothes, and sparkling jewels,
Becoming Marie Antoinette will utterly captivate fiction and history lovers alike.

My review:

I don't feel strongly about this book one way or another. For most of its page count, I found it diverting, but not fully engrossing. Juliet Grey's writing is fine and I enjoyed her sympathetic portrayal of Marie Antoinette; I think the 'problems' such as they are, come from the choice of material. Becoming Marie Antoinette is the first book in a trilogy about the life of the French queen and so this novel starts with her early life in Austria, with her marriage taking place at the halfway mark and ends with her becoming queen. I imagine the next 2 books in the series will be better than this one; this early period of MA's life just isn't the story that has captivated people for centuries.
Becoming Marie Antoinette first shows us a ten year-old MA, who thinks of nothing but having fun with her sisters and playing tricks on her governess, until she is told by her mother that she is to marry the dauphin of France and one day become its queen. MA's childhood comes to an abrupt end, as she now must undergo a series of 'improvements' on her body and her mind, until she is deemed worthy of this honour. In a straight biography of MA, this detail, while interesting, would probably only take up a few pages or a chapter at most. Here, it is half the book. While I did feel for MA (I don't think anyone who's ever worn braces on their teeth can help cringing for her at the thought of 18th-century orthodontics - it's painful enough now!), like her, I wondered when it would finally be over.

As various doctors and teachers march in and out of MA's life and her family members either die of smallpox or are married off, another issue becomes apparent. I liked MA, but she isn't a strong enough character to carry this book on her own and there really isn't any other character for the reader to get invested in - except the dauphin, towards the end of the novel. For the most part, people come and they go and I didn't feel like I got to know them enough to care. Especially as I found it hard to keep track of who was who: Everybody is called either Maria Something or Comte de Something Else. None of this is the author's fault; Marie Antoinette's early life was lonely and the names and titles of the European nobles were confusing. But unfortunately, this did affect my ability to get fully into the book.

The story picked up for me when MA finally made it to Versailles, as the gossip and scandal of the Versailles court will always be good stuff. And as I mentioned, probably the best character portrayal is that of Louis Auguste. Grey avoids treating this awkward young man like a buffoon and instead treats him with real tenderness and dignity, and his relationship with MA becomes very touching. You can feel friendship and care for each other tentatively grow between them and their marriage comes to feel like a nice one, even if they are not madly in love. Their scenes together were my favourites, hands-down.

Will I read the next two books in this trilogy? Unless I find another Marie Antoinette series that 100% kicks ass, I'm inclined to say yes, as this one improved for me as it went along and Grey's novels will be a decent way to read the next part of the story, which is the part I'm waiting for.

Rating: 3 stars

This book was provided to me by the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for a fair and honest review.


  1. Hmmm, I'm a bit torn with this one. On the one hand I don't know much about MA and would love to learn more but on the other, I'm not huge into historical novels or books where you know what the outcome is. Will look forward to your reviews of the next book in the seris to make a decision.

    1. If you're not hugely into historical fiction, I probably wouldn't advise you to start with this one. It's not the kind of novel to win new fans; more like, if you already enjoy reading this kind of book, you'll find it a nice enough use of your time.

  2. I think I liked this one a little more than you did. It was fascinating to see all the changes she had to make in order to be considered suitable for the French. I also liked the parts dealing with her and her new husband, not the best beginning for a marriage!

  3. I just finished Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran and loved it. Have you read that? It's too bad that this was just okay for you. Those are always the hardest reviews to write.

  4. Very nicely reviewed. I liked this book and I appreciated all the time the author spent on MA's early years. But...I also agree with you. It was a little dry and tedious after a while. I also agree, MA isn't a strong character (no fault of the author, but there nonetheless). My biggest complaint about the book was that it felt more like non-fiction--MA did not come alive for me as much as I wanted. Still, I liked it enough that I will read the rest of the trilogy.

    Have you read The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer? It runs through MA's whole life and I enjoyed it a lot.

    1. Thanks, Small! That means a lot, coming from you. RE: The Bad Queen - I've had my eye on reading that for while, but I've been a little hesitant, because I'm not sure how young it skews. I can read and enjoy a lot of middle grade fiction, but it does depend.


If you visit this blog, please comment! I really do appreciate and read every one and try to answer back as much as possible.