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Monday, November 28, 2011

Louis Who??

Before Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIVBefore Versailles: A Novel of Louis XIV by Karleen Koen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a goodreads giveaway that took several months to arrive so the review is much later than the would normally be the case. I loved this book on so many levels. I'll start with the setting. Having gone to France about 20 years ago, it was a joy to revisit several majestic places through Koen's eyes. My guide, a friend, who is head of a school in Sevres, started out by taking me to Fountainebleau, which as I remember was huge but in sad need of repair--wings were totally devoid of any furnishings, the windows were filthy and bare and in places broken. I don't know how much of the then on-going renovation has been completed since then but even in its horrendous state it was an impressive place. I remember there were quite a few peacocks and peahens strutting among the ruins and I thought how they must have looked when the gardens and buildings were in their glory and the humans strutted right along with them. Our next stop was Vaux-le-Vicompte---what a jewel! Words cannot express, or at least mine cannot, the incredible beauty of the place and the impact it has in every way on the visitor. Koen's description of the awe in which the guests beheld it when Nicholas Fourget opened it to them is exactly the reaction today's guests have upon seeing it. My friend told me then the story of Louis' finance minister, his increasing power culminating in this masterpiece, and the reaction of Louis to this perceived threat to his own power. The arrest of Fourget was inevitable and the takeover of Vaux by Louis not unexpected. Finally,she took me to Versailles and Vaux, that magnificent statement of one man's power, became a mere country estate in comparison! All of this was reiterated in Koen's beautiful prose throughout her narrative, which covered merely four months in the life of the newly crowned King of France, Louis XIV.

These four months, however, are spent primarily at Fountainebleau. Vaux was under construction at the time and Versailles was merely a hunting lodge out beyond the forests that have for the most part disappeared today. The intrigues of court, the struggles of a new monarch,who is only 22 years old,to establish himself in the eyes of his court and even in his own eyes are compelling. Throw into the mix, a brother, who is, to say the least scandalous and several women of varying personal strengths and weaknesses, with whom Louis also must deal and the plot, as they say, thickens.

A subplot, a legend never fully authenticated, involving a boy in an iron mask, possibly a royal prince, has been treated in many other books and movies. Here the characters involved are more thoroughly limned--from the musketeer who cares for him, to the monks in whose monastery he is initially housed, and the mother who refuses to visit him. The story is as sad here as at any time it has been told. Could Louis have had an idiot brother,possibly a bastard brother, who was secreted away for whatever reason? A threat to Louis' own legitimacy and therefore a threat to the throne and he who held it? Or perhaps, merely an embarrassment to the royal blood? Who knows. But as I read this I could not help but think of the present Queen Elizabeth's uncle who was kept hidden, unvisited for the most part by his mother, the Queen and his father, the King, primarily because he was epileptic. How much more embarrassing must idiocy have been to the French royal family?

Lastly, though a Francophile, I often got Louis XIV and Louis XVI mixed up. I cannot explain it--they were certainly light years apart, chronologically and politically to say nothing of the times in which they lived or the way in which they died. After this book, that is not likely to happen again!

All in all a delightful, interesting read with settings and characters thoroughly developed. If there is any criticism at all, and it is a small one, I had to check back to the front a few times to ascertain who a certain character was when the formal title, rather than the actual name, was used. This happened most ofter when there was more than one formal title involved for the same person--another practice that continues amongst the royals today. Just so confusing--let's just call them all Mack!

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