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Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund

Cheryl Truman
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Marie Antoinette started out as what we today would call dumb as a stump.

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette

Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 560
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $26.95
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
US publication date: 2006-10

Marie Antoinette started out as what we today would call dumb as a stump.

In Abundance (William Morrow, $26.95), Louisville, Ky., writer Sena Jeter Naslund's new historical novel about Marie Antoinette, she was an extra princess in an Austrian royal family where children were not so much treasured as whelped for political benefit. Marie Antoinette was never much of a reader, never caught on to the political desperation that .ignited the French Revolution and persisted in stunts such as .creating faux impoverished villages for her own playtime when France was stuffed with authentically .impoverished villages filled with the starving.

Abundance portrays Marie .Antoinette as intellectually .incurious, lacking in conscience and morally ambiguous. (On the plus side, she liked flowers, was a decent mother to her children and rarely overate.)

She liked to gamble and loved to flirt. Although she .professed love for Louis XVI, her great ape of a husband, her heart belonged to a Swedish nobleman with whom she shared numerous, largely chaste declarations of undying devotion. What the Swede sees in Marie Antoinette the reader of Abundance never knows.

Marie Antoinette was not the economical type, although she loved pretending she was. Living 200 years before Princess Diana convinced the world that pricey couture was cool if you also opposed land mines and hugged the terminally ill, Marie Antoinette sadly lacked the services of a canny publicist.

Still, even Marie Antoinette's mother, the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, thought her daughter was .clueless. Antoinette's brother, Joseph II, emperor of Austria, predicted that she and her king would end in a catastrophe of their own making. Which they did. After misreading the seeds of the French Revolution -- in one telling episode, the couple convince themselves that moldy bread is in fact painted for .dramatic effect -- Louis and Marie Antoinette attempt to go with the flow of the bloody new regime, then try to escape, and finally resign themselves to die with dignity.

This last part they manage pretty well.

Unfortunately, it's the way that people live that generally speaks for them, rather than the moments when they die. And in those moments when they're supposed to be living and leading, the king and queen fail repeatedly: They aren't politicians or even particularly adept at reading political currents across Europe -- even when the facts are laid out before them by savvy family members and adroit counselors. In an era when the successful monarch knew that the appointed-by-God line was hooey and that success went to the smart, Antoinette and Louis carried on like they ruled France from the pages of People magazine.

Marie Antoinette at least could claim that her main job was ornament, but even there she was something of a washout. The truly successful ornamental queen accessorized with a full womb and had a passing grasp of whether her subjects loved her or were merely being assembled for an impromptu round of monarch worship. Marie Antoinette alternately moralizes like a biddy, refusing to speak to her grandfather-in-law's influential mistress, Madame du Barry, and fritters away money because she sees herself as put-upon and in need of entertainment.

In one of Abundance's extended set-pieces, Antoinette spends an obscene amount of time and drama trying to convince her subjects that she didn't actually buy an expensive piece of jewelry; the point she misses is that she has bought an excessive amount of real estate, furnishings, paid flatterers, jewel-encrusted cups, paintings, landscaping and clothing. In the end, it's a distinction without a difference, and Marie Antoinette can grasp neither.

True, Antoinette might never have said "Let them eat cake" -- in Naslund's book, at least, Antoinette doesn't have the sarcastic oomph to pop out that nugget -- but the cliche about not seeing the forest for the trees? Now that could have been her invention.

Marie Antoinette's husband, alas, was a pork chop of a king who managed to get her pregnant only with the most extreme of effort and would rather spend his time hunting; one supposes that if he had a TV and remote control, the French monarchy might have ended right there. Louis rarely had an original thought, .misinterpreted the works of the era's philosophers and received bad advice, which he managed through sheer serendipity to make even worse.

But despite the pitiful tale of the end of the French monarchy, this is Marie Antoinette's season to shine in pop culture. Hollywood darling Kirsten Dunst stars in Sofia Coppola's glossy Marie Antoinette, which has received mixed reviews. A child's book in The Royal Diaries series, Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, wisely concentrates on the Austrian-stranger-in-France theme, ignoring that whole guillotine unpleasantness.

A few years ago, master British biographer Antonia Fraser kicked off Antoinette-mania with her 2001 book, Marie Antoinette: The Journey.

Naslund's book title, Abundance, is ironic. While Marie Antoinette had abundance, she was repellent; when she was finally reduced, by fear and loss, she became a character worth knowing more fully. Naslund's irony is a pretty thing.

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