Friday, August 7, 2015

The Exchange of Princesses - Chantal Thomas

Summary: Philippe d’Orléans, the regent of France, has a gangrenous heart–the result of a life of debauchery, alcohol, power, and flattery. One morning in 1721, he has a brilliant idea to further appease his thirst for power: he decides to marry eleven-year-old Louis the XV to the daughter of Philippe V of Spain, who is only four. This, Orléans hopes, will tie his kingdom to Spain’s. But it could also have a more duplicitous effect: were Louis XV to die without begetting an heir–the likeliness of which is greatly increased by having a child—Orléans himself would finally be king. In exchange, Orléans tosses his own daughter into the bargain, the 12-year-old Mlle de Montpensier, who will marry the Prince of Asturias, the inheritor of the Spanish throne.

The Spanish court enthusiastically agrees and arrangements are quickly made. The two nations trade their princesses in a grand ceremony in 1722, making bonds that should end the historical conflict between them. Of course, nothing turns out as expected. In a novel that reads like a fairy tale, Chantal Thomas chronicles a time in French history when children were not children, but pawns in an adult’s game. (Summary and Pic from

I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

My Review:The thing that always surprises me about works of historical fiction that have almost anything to do with monarchies is how horrible things actually were.  I mean, we know life was different, and of course there was no indoor plumbing or heating or electricity (and if you’ve ever visited Europe and the old castles there, you can see right away how cold and dreary that would have been in the winter nights) but what I’m always shocked about are familial relations. Mawage. You know, that which bwings us togeder today?

I found this story of these particular little princesses uniquely sad. I mean, the Spanish princess was only four years old. Four! And the poor French princess was essentially abandoned and driven mad in the end, and she was so young as well. Expectations were so high for both of them, and--as with all good stories of monarchies and basically anyone who thinks they have a God-given right to rule over everybody--these sad little princesses were disposable. Both were pawns, both were simply just a means to an end for greedy people who wanted power and wealth. Reading this book showed me that although of course the royal family had a lot of control of the power and of who married whom, it was also the interests of their “trusted advisers” (and yes I know how to properly use quotations. These people are indeed “trusted advisers” versus trusted advisers). And the “trusted advisers,” really, of course, had their own ideas and agendas and cared not about those they hurt or what pawns they used. Cue sad little princesses. No one cared about them. They were interesting when they were needed. When they weren’t? Discarded. So sad.

The book itself was written very matter-of-factly. There were no yummy descriptions of beautiful cloth, sumptuous living, and scandalous court life. I missed that, actually. If I’m going to delve into historical fiction, I want to feel like I’m there—the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the ambience. I really want to feel enveloped in that. I did not feel that with this book. Now, to be fair, this book is a translation from the original French. Maybe some of that was, er, lost in translation, but I don’t know. The writing wasn’t clunky, but it certainly wasn’t fluid and beautiful. I think one of the most prolific and popular writers of historical fiction of this ilk, Philippa Gregory, really sets a standard of making you feel like you’re there--even if she does sometimes walk the line of what is actually true and what is her conjecture.  (I think this could be the case with this book as well.) But it did lack that rich historical detail. It did take awhile to get into the book, although by the end I was certainly moving right along and wanting to know what happened to these poor little girls.

My Rating: 3 stars.

For the sensitive reader: There is language and sexual content in this book. I think it is on par with other books like this, but it is certainly not squeaky clean. 

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