We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sesa Jeter Naslund's _Abundance_ · 2 March 07

Dear Harriet,

Another excellent review of a 21st century historical novel set in the 18th century from Leslie Robertson:

"I finished reading Sesa Jeter Naslund’s Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette. I only have time to make a few brief comments on it because it’s overdue at the library—someone recalled it and I have to get it back today.

My first, not terribly profound, comment is that I enjoyed it. It’s highly readable.

The novel is told in the first person, with Marie Antoinette (Toinette to her friends) telling her own story and sharing her own impressions. This works quite well, although it becomes a little harder to accept towards the end when the absence of anyone who might hear her voice feels more problematic—who is she supposed to be speaking to? herself? an imaginary listener? I don’t think Naslund has really decided where and at whom the voice is directed. And that uncertainly creates some inconsistencies at times

And the voice doesn’t change enough. She’s a child when the book starts, only 14, on her way to France, and the voice sounds too assured, too polished and sophisticated for a 14-year-old. But the voice is certainly often quite beautiful. Here are the opening lines of the book:

"Like everyone, I am born naked.

I do not refer to my actual birth, mercifully hidden in the silk
folds of memory, but to my birth as a citizen of France—citoyenne,
they would say. Having shed all my clothing, I stand in a room on an island in the middle of the Rhine River—naked. My bare feet occupy for this moment a spot considered to be neutral between beloved Austria and France. The sky blue silk of my discarded skirt wreathes my ankles, and I fancy I am standing barefooted in a puddle of pretty water."

This opening scene reminded me of the closing scene of the movie Elizabeth (with Cate Blanchett). in which Elizabeth is dressed by courtiers and transformed from living breathing woman into a statue, a symbol, an image, an icon, The Queen.

Something similar happens to Marie Antoinette (and there are other scenes of ritualised dressing and undressing throughout the book that keep recalling that first one), except the living breathing human being underneath the carapace is still there and talking to us and not sure exactly how to negotiate and live with the gap between Queen and person.

Through much of the book, Naslund presents her as living in a bubble, an enclosed world at Versailles that touches the real world hardly at all. She’s aware of the disjunction but is powerless to do anything about it, so she determines to make that bubble world as appealing and as pleasant as she can. Within that world, too, she retains her sense of the people’s affection for her from that ritualised entry into France. When she becomes aware that she has, in fact, become an object of intense hatred, she is utterly bewildered. She has tried to be as nice and as good as she could, so why don’t they like her? Don’t they see how nice I am and how much I really wish for their well-being and want to help them?

Well, of course they don’t because her niceness and her good wishes and desire to help almost never connect to anything outside the bubble she’s in. That’s not her fault, anymore than the accumulated hatred created by the debauched Louis XV is her fault, but she reaps the consequences. She persists for a long time in thinking that if only people could know her, they would like her, they couldn’t possibly hate her so much. And she’s right.

She’s hated not as a person, but as a symbol. And she’s been
trapped in the symbol, in that carapace. She knew that wasn’t her. It was The Queen not Toinette, but no one outside the bubble knew Toinette existed—and even within the bubble, court ritual and formality kept her from being known to many. For a woman who is almost never alone (the scenes of her and her sister-in-law giving birth, with all sorts of people jostling around to watch and witness, are very good and horrifying), she is horribly isolated. She is surrounded by people, most of them not of her choosing, so who could blame her when she tries to create a little personal circle of people who do know her, who know Toinette?

In the end, her isolation is complete, as she kneels alone at the guillotine, surrounded by crowds of people and with a madman under the platform below a gap between the the boards leering up at her, waiting for her blood to pour over him—completely hemmed in by observers, but completely alone.

There are some good passages on her frustrated sexuality in her sexless (for the first years) marriage, a sexlessness for which she is held to be primarily responsible, though the things people tell her to do to fix it are exactly what she’s already doing (be sweet and feminine and encouraging, appeal to him—but how on earth is she to do that? she has no idea), parallelled with the increasingly obscene public discourse about her, which focus on her deviant sexuality even as the court worries about her supposedly absent sexuality. And her real sexuality goes unnoticed by almost everyone.

Not a perfect novel, but quite a good one. And now I have to run it back to the library.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Naslund said of her widely selling Ahab’s Wife: "It irked me a bit to be aware that these two candidates for the title ‘Great American Novel’ had almost no women in them. Half the human race ignored, yet their vision was considered among the most complete, the greatest."


    After her earliest short fiction appeared in literary journals, Sena Jeter Naslund published the story collection Ice Skating at the North Pole. The individual stories share certain characteristics, according to Library Journal reviewer Marcia Tager: "a recurring motif" of music or musical instrument; a calamity that damages or threatens a woman’s life, and an exploration of "what it means to live, love, work, and make music in the world as it exists for us all." Publishers Weekly reviewer Sybil Steinberg noted Naslund’s realistic portrayals of women and their lives, predicting that "her idiosyncratic characters might be advantageously transplanted to a longer work."

    The novel Sherlock in Love was commended by critics, including Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert, as the one among several recent Sherlock Holmes spinoffs that "comes closes to achieving the style of [Sir Arthur Conan] Doyle’s original work." The novel represents an "attempt to close the one case in which Holmes failed to bring a miscreant to justice," Tobin Harshaw reported in the New York Times Book Review. In Naslund’s version, Holmes has died and Dr. Watson is attempting to write a biography of his old friend. When he publishes a newspaper advertisement requesting background information from Holmes’s former contacts, he is assailed by all manner of anonymous threats to his safety and invasions of his security arrangements. When he follows clues to this unexpected mystery backward in time, Watson uncovers characters from Holmes’s past, including a woman who had masqueraded as a male violinist and a love affair that could surprise die-hard fans of Conan Doyle. In her Booklist review, Donna Seaman described Sherlock in Love as a "cleverly plotted, cheerfully risque adventure," replete with "entertaining . . . historical references."

    If Sherlock in Love was "elegant," as Hoffert asserted in a 1999 review in Library Journal, then so are the stories in The Disobedience of Water: Stories and Novellas—"a bit quirkier, a bit more modern, but just as satisfying in their own way." In this collection, a Publishers Weekly contributor reported, "Plot matters less to Naslund than voice, sympathy, setting and tone," Seaman explained in Booklist: "Each tale begins as though the reader has just opened a door or turned a corner and walked into a conversation." Maud Casey called this a "fiercely beautiful" anthology of stories about people who are struggling to reach out to each other. Casey wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "Naslund has an eye for odd, telling details" and a talent for communicating "this oddness in language so sharp and precise that it is sometimes pleasantly painful."

    After listening to audio versions of classics such as Moby-Dick and Huckleberry Finn with her daughter during a long drive, Naslund came up with the idea for her next book, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer. In an interview with Leslie Haynesworth for Publishers Weekly, Naslund related that "It irked me a bit to be aware that these two candidates for the title ‘Great American Novel’ had almost no women in them. Half the human race ignored, yet their vision was considered among the most complete, the greatest." Naslund decided to write the story of Moby Dick through the eyes of Una, a young woman who disguises herself as a cabin boy and sets sail on a whaling ship. Una endures a series of horrific adventures, including marriage to a madman, before eventually meeting, and marrying Captain Ahab. Linda Simon, in World and I, wrote, "Ahab’s Wife is nothing less than artful and satisfying fiction: a compelling history of a heroic woman." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that "Una is a character who is destined to endure."
    Elinor    Mar 2, 6:09am    #

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