Scandalous Book Review: Before Versailles

  • Title:  Before Versailles
  • Author:  Karleen Koen
  • Pub. Date: June 28, 2011
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Format: Hardcover, 480pp
  • Verdict:  Run Don't Walk to the Bookstore to buy this book!
Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . . Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen, Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire.

My thoughts:  I first read Karleen Koen's first book THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY when it first came out back in 1986, which I still have.  I think it was the first novel that I ever bought in hardcover, with my hard-earned money from my first grown-up job.  I remember loving the rich detail of the book, although I was furious with several of the main characters for what I thought was their mistreatment of the heroine, Barbara. I read her other two books, but it's been a long wait for her new one.

Koen's new book, BEFORE VERSAILLES,  is released in bookstores today and it was well worth the wait. It is a sumptuous confection of a novel filled with rich details of the court of the young Louis XIV.  Koen focuses on a four months in Louis' life when the reader gets a glimpse of what he was like before he became the powerful, absolute monarch who became known as the Sun King.  This Louis is still finding his feet as King after the death of his mentor (and possibly his mother's lover) Cardinal Mazarin who had guided Louis from his childhood. Now Louis must learn who he can trust and who he can't, who has his best interests and those of France at heart, and those who seek solely to enrich to themselves.  He also has to contend with his younger brother Philippe who alternates between hero-worship and resentment, and his burgeoning, illicit love for his cousin and sister-in-law Henriette also known as Madame.

I have always had a bit of a crush on the royal cousins, Louis XIV and Charles II, particularly in the early years of their reign, so I was interested to hear at the Historical Novel Society conference that this was the first time that Koen had featured a real life historical person at the center of her book, and it is easy to see why Louis grabbed her imagination, and why this particular period in time.  This Louis alternates between confidence in his own abilities and seeking the wisdom of others. It is fascinating to watch him grow over the course of the novel as he realizes his own strengths as a monarch. There was a part of me as I was reading the book that wished that Minette (Henriette) and Louis could have had their happy ending (I've always felt this way) but the Minette in Koen's hands, while she loves the King is torn between that love, and realizing that as a woman, she has much farther to fall than her beloved. Anne of Austria, in Koen's hands, is woman who is tired after years of trying to hold onto power and to the kingdom for her son, but still wily and manipulative when she needs to be. It's such a contrast to the Anne that Dumas portrays in The Three Muskateers. I would love to see how Koen would treat the earlier Anne in the court of Louis XIII, who comes across as a 17th century version of Richard Nixon.

Koen is such a skilled storyteller that I have the time I was in awe while I was reading the book, the way she weaves the story of the Man in the Iron Mask, which the court intrigues, and the human drama, made me want to genuflect at her feet. Not once I was I lost or confused in the maze of characters that populate the court at Fontainebleau. Her ability to make such a vast group of inviduals come alive, and to get into each characters head is truly remarkable. From La Grande Mademoiselle down to the musketeer Cinq Mars, the reader knows exactly who they are, what they stand for and what they feel at any given moment. Louise de la Valliere, who I've normally thought of as the least interesting of the Sun King's many mistresses, comes alive in this novel. She manages to hold onto her moral compass while everyone around is losing theirs, as they jockey for position at court. Her innocence and naivete aren't cloying in Koen's hands. Minette, on the other, comes across at times as drunk on her own power over Louis, less in love with him and more in love with the idea of her power over him, which seems like a fresh approach. She's always been one of my favorite historical figures, but I've always found it her one of the saddest. It's understandable after years of being the poor, orphaned princess without a father or a country that she would revel a bit in her power. Koen comes up with a plausible interpretation of the myth of The Man in the Iron Mask which makes more sense than the one that Dumas came up with in his novel of the same name.

Her prose is stunning and evocative.  This is what Louis thinks about the Viscomte Nicholas Fouquet, "He was going to have to break the Viscount in half and hold the pieces up like trophies to paralyze his court with aw and under the awe, real fear." I couldn't put this book down and when it was over I wanted more, which is the sign of an amazing storyteller.

Interested in reading more about Karleen Koen?  Check out these interviews at Madame Guillotine and Passages to the Past.


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