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Farewell, My Queen    by Chantal Thomas order for
Farewell, My Queen
by Chantal Thomas
Order:  USA  Can
George Braziller, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Nina de Angeli

The palace of Versailles today - with its tranquil gardens, glittering Hall of Mirrors, and stately royal apartments - is a popular tourist destination a short drive from Paris. But what did it feel like to live there at the court of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI during the upheaval of the French Revolution? You don't need to be a royalist sympathizer to be enthralled with this novel (translated by Moishe Black) about the tragic Queen Marie Antoinette.

Farewell My Queen won the Prix Femina. Chantal Thomas is a French historian, also author of a biography of Marie Antoinette. This novel is narrated by Mme. Agathe Laborde, a subordinate lady in waiting whose only function is to read to the queen a few times a week, sometimes in the middle of the night if Her Highness suffers from insomnia. Agathe worships the beautiful queen, and lives only for her brief times reading to her. The rest of the time she wanders idly around the grounds, chatting with her friends, listening for political rumors, and fending off the rats and insects that infest the vast palace.

In this highly original take on a familiar story, Chantal Thomas vividly reconstructs the physical and emotional details of court life. Agathe is politically naive, deeply cocooned in the luxurious, make-believe world of Versailles. So it comes as a complete shock to her and most of the other courtiers on July 14, 1789, when news arrives that a Paris mob has invaded and destroyed the prison fortress of the Bastille - an event now commemorated as the start of the French Revolution. At Versailles, servants mock their former masters, the national assembly dictates terms to the king, and the old order crumbles with amazing speed.

Gracefully translated and smoothly written, Farewell My Queen is structured around the crisis, taking place in just three days from July 14th to 17th. A prologue and epilogue show Agathe in old age, exiled with the French émigrés in Vienna and mourning her lost queen.

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