Abundance, by Sena Jeter Naslund

I like Sena Jeter Naslund. Every novel I’ve read of hers has been slow to get into, never a fast or page-turning read, but always, ultimately, beautiful and rewarding. Abundance fits the bill on most of these counts: like Ahab’s Wife and Four Spirits it was by no means a quick read for me, but it did pull me in more as I went along. The writing is beautiful (when it escapes being self-consciously literary). The one thing I’d have to question is whether it was, in the end, a rewarding read.

Abundance is a novel in my favourite genre — a fictional portrayal of a real-life historical woman, in this case Marie Antoinette. Naslund’s prologue makes it clear that she sympathizes with Antoinette and sets out to write a sympathetic portrayal of her. While Antoinette comes alive as a character, and the setting is vividly realized, in the end I found the author’s view of the character too uncritical to believe. Marie Antoinette is not, as Naslund is at pains to point out, the heartless bitch who allegedly said, “Let them eat cake!” when told the peasants had no bread. She was, however, as Naslund portrays her, almost unbelievably self-centred and naive to the point of stupidity — yet these qualities are never examined; we are expected to go on sympathizing with her even as she makes decisions that are clearly ridiculous and help to make the monarchy look frivolous and irresponsible in the eyes of the French people. She emerges from this novel as a pathetic, rather than a tragic figure. Maybe that was what Naslund wanted to portray.

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Filed under Fiction -- historical

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