Summary and book reviews of Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund

Abundance

A Novel of Marie Antoinette

By Sena Jeter Naslund

Abundance
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2006,
    560 pages.
    Paperback: May 2007,
    592 pages.

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Book Summary

"Like everyone, I am born naked."

With this opening line of Naslund's compelling new novel, a very human Marie Antoinette invites readers to live her story as she herself experiences it. From the lush gardens of Versailles to the lights and gaiety of Paris, the verdant countryside of France, and finally the stark and terrifying isolation of a prison cell, the young queen's life is joyful, poignant, and harrowing by turns. As her world of unprecedented royal splendor crumbles, the charming Marie Antoinette matures into a heroine of inspiring stature, one whose nobility arises not from the circumstance of her birth but from her courageous spirit.

Marie Antoinette was a child of fourteen when her mother, the Empress of Austria, arranged for her to leave her family and her country to become the wife of the fifteen-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France. Coming of age in the most public of arenas, the young queen embraces her new family and the French people, and she is embraced in return. Eager to be a good wife and strong queen, she shows her new husband nothing but love and encouragement, though he repeatedly fails to consummate their marriage and in doing so, fails to give her the thing she—and the people of France—desire most: a child and an heir to the throne.

Deeply disappointed and isolated in her own intimate circle apart from the social life of the court, the queen allows herself to remain ignorant of the country's growing economic and political crises. She entrusts her soul to her women friends, her music teacher, her hairdresser, the ambassador from Austria, and a certain Swedish count so handsome that admirers label him "the Picture." When her innocent and well-chaperoned pilgrimage to watch the sun rise is viciously misrepresented in satiric pamphlets as a drunken orgy, the people begin to turn against her. Poor harvests, bitter winters, war debts, and poverty precipitate rebellion and revenge as the royal family and many nobles are caught up in a murderous time known as "the Terror."

With penetrating insight into new historical scholarship and with wondrous narrative skill, Naslund offers an intimate, fresh, and dramatic re-creation of this compelling woman that goes beyond popular myth. Abundance reveals a compassionate and spontaneous Marie Antoinette who rejected the formality and rigid protocol of the court; an enchanting and tenderhearted outsider who was loved by her adopted homeland and people until she became the target of revolutionary cruelty and violence; a dethroned queen whose depth of character sustained her in even the worst of times.

Once again, Sena Jeter Naslund has shed new light on an important moment of historical change and made that time as real to us as the one we are living now. Exquisitely detailed, beautifully written, heartbreaking and powerful, Abundance is a novel that is impossible to put down.

An Island in the Rhine River, May
1770

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.

My chest is as flat as a shield, marked only by two pink rosebuds of nipples. I refuse to be afraid. In the months since I became fourteen, I've watched these pleasant rosebuds becoming a bit plump and pinker. Now the fingers and hands of my attendants are stretching toward my neck to remove a smooth circlet of Austrian pearls.

I try to picture the French boy, whom I have never seen, extending large ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Sena Jeter Naslund has divided her novel into five "acts," like a Shakespearean play. Does Marie Antoinette achieve the stature of a tragic protagonist at the end of the novel? If she is ennobled through suffering by the end of the novel, what has been her tragic flaw? What are her admirable qualities?

  2. Recount the dramatic evolution of Marie Antoinette's character, from her arrival in France at the age of fourteen to her death just shy of thirty-eight. What prompts Marie Antoinette's transformation from callow moralist and pliant dauphine in early chapters to empathic mother and brave stoic in the novel's culmination at the Conciergerie?

  3. The specter of imprisonment haunts the entirety of Abundance. From her arrival at Versailles ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Marie Antoinette has been much maligned over the last couple of centuries; but many recent books, most notably Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette (non-fiction) have gone a long way to putting flesh back on to the caricature. Naslund adds value by allowing Marie Antoinette to speak for herself, giving us access to the secret thoughts and feelings (albeit hypothetical) of the young queen - territory that a biographer must be wary of entering.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
Washington Post - Ron Charles

Naslund commands historical details to portray the world's most extravagant palace in all its dazzling splendor and inane ceremony. Her study of contemporary memoirs and letters allows her to speak in a voice that conveys the queen's delicacy and earnestness as she strives to be the embodiment of peace between Austria and France.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. With vivid detail and exquisite narrative technique, Naslund exemplifies the best of historical fiction, finding the woman beneath the pose, a queen facing history as it rises up against her.

Booklist - Mary Ellen Quinn

The reputation of a queen once scorned for her frivolity has undergone a rehabilitation lately....and Naslund's portrayal is firmly in that camp. Readers of serious historical fiction will revel in it.

Library Journal

Naslund's marvelous work is more detailed and has more depth than Carolly Erickson's The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. Highly recommended.

Kirkus Reviews

Naslund has done her homework, and imagined her complex, bewitching protagonist in persuasive depth and detail. The result is an exemplary historical novel.

Reader Reviews
Cariola

Fascinating Portrait
Naslund's portrait of Marie Antoinette makes the doomed queen a much more multifacted and interesting character than previous historical novels. The technique of interweaving letters between her and her mother with the narration of events worked ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Sena Jeter Naslund was born in Birmingham, Alabama; her mother taught music and her father, who died when she was 15, was a doctor; she has two older brothers. In high school she played cello with the Alabama Pops Orchestra. She won a music scholarship to the University of Alabama but turned it down in favor of studying writing at Birmingham-Southern College. While she was there she attended the Breadloaf Writers' Conference - a two week series of lectures, workshops and classes (since 1926, the conference has been held annually at the Breadloaf Inn, Middlebury, Vermont and claims to be the oldest writers' conference in the USA). After graduating from Birmingham-Southern, she was accepted at the Iowa Writers' Workshop...

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