Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

Title: The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette
Author: Carolly Erickson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Published: 2006
Pages: 368

Rating: 2 out of 10

When I picked up this book at my used bookstore, I looked skeptically at the cover. It looked to me like another fluffy, shallow book about a princess or queen, who is portrayed in a fancy dress with her head cut out of the frame (so inventive). However, I reminded myself that you cannot judge books by their covers, and bought it anyways. Sadly, my suspicions were completely accurate.

This is the fictional diary of Marie Antoinette, beginning just a little before she is engaged to the dauphin Louis XVI of France. Marie continues writing in the journal, about her marriage to a dry, piteous boy who she develops a friendship with, her affair with a dashing count, the birth of her children, and her eventual betrayal and imprisonment as the Revolution washes over France.

I love the French Revolution, but this book captured almost none of it. Rather, we see the excessively decadent lifestyles of Marie and the ladies of her court that led to, or at least helped speed up, the ruin of France's finances and economy. By the time the book starts mentioning the revolutionaries, we still know very little about them. If I had known nothing of history and this book was my first introduction to anything French Revolution, I would have assumed that a mob of citizens simply gathered together to execute Marie Antoinette, and that was all there was to it.

Normally, I dislike the diary format. Maybe it is just because there were so many of them when I was in middle school (Dear America, My America, Dear Canada, Royal Diaries, and many many more), but I almost always find them childish. And this one was no exception. If Erickson had written this book without the diary style, I think it would have been just slightly better - a star better, maybe?

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is implausible, weak, contrived, and simply uninteresting. Look all you want for a strong, solid portrayal of the infamous queen that takes you "deep into the psyche of France's doomed queen," as the back cover promises, but expect to be disappointed. In fact, 'deep' is the precise opposite word I would use to describe this book.

Every character was sketchy and badly written, predictable, and lifeless. Marie was painted as being spoiled and vain in the beginning, and senselessly ignorant (but in a good way!) in the end. The author's method of illustrating her heroine's mistake of being so selfish and lavish was extremely obvious.
Marie would write in her diary "Today I ordered everyone to wear feathers, and a few hours later, the shops were all sold out. We had to hide the palace birds to protect them..."
Or "I have no idea what all of our palace balls cost, but I'm sure it's a lot!"
These are not actual quotes, as I didn't take note of them while reading, but I am writing them from memory.
The author would slip in these passing side notes as if she was counting pages and had made a note to herself saying: "Write something about Marie's spending every 5 pages." It seemed robotic and completely lacking in genuineness.

Louis, Marie's odd and anti-social husband, was the only character that worked, in a very small way. He is reclusive, and does not appear in the story all that much. This was the only reason he was half-way - no, quarter-way - believable. The lack of getting to know him fit his character, luckily for the author.

The character of Amelie, Marie's traitorous chambermaid, was laughable. Literally. I couldn't decide between groaning or laughing at the way Erickson wrote her. It was just ghastly. She was really that bad.
For most of the book, Amelie is just like a Mean Girl in high school. Marie hates her and is jealous of her, but is also afraid of her and finds herself longing for Amelie's approval. Must all shallow books have a snotty Mean Girl and return to high school? Well, I suppose that that is this book's level.
But anyways, by the end of the book, Amelie has joined the revolutionaries and is guarding Marie in her prison cell.
She jabs clumsily written insults at Marie, always 100% the bad guy. When her husband dies, she "smiles and doesn't care." She also seems to be some high ranking person, because everyone follows her orders, though in reality a young woman would never have had the authority to do all the things she does.
Amelie will be joining my list of 'Worst Villains of All Time.'

Marie's romantic interests, first in her servant Eric and later in Axel, were tedious to say the least. There was a lot of eye rolling from me. In the beginning, I thought that the author was simply writing it this way to illustrate how immature Marie was, but by the time we reach the end, where Erickson is very obviously portraying Marie as grown up, strong, etc etc, she is still the same silly girl.

The whole thing with Axel confused me. I was very sure that Erickson was setting him up to the be a bad guy later. He makes careless remarks often, most notably when he laughs about a group of peasants fighting to the death over a few crumbs, and then says "You should see the really poor ones."
However, maybe the author forgot she had this idea. Or maybe she really does think that peasants killing each other over bread crumbs isn't really that bad.
Whatever the reason, Axel is the hero of the story.
There was also some pointless sidetracking about Axel's former mistress finding Marie, telling her that if she loves him, she will break up with him, etc. etc., Marie doesn't do it, and there are no repercussions.

It was funny how Marie and her court were 'The Good Guys' and the revolutionaries were all 'The Bad Guys.' Crisp black and white lines were drawn, which is always unrealistic, inaccurate, and insensitive.

With this ridiculous attempt at "history," Erickson is an author I hope to never come across again.