Author: Karleen Koen
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Audiobook Length: 15 hours, 56 minutes
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“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…”
Thoughts: Before one can truly understand the sentiments that brought about the Reign of Terror and the fall of the monarchy in France during the late 1700s, one must go back to the beginning and the behaviors and experiences that set France on its path. In Before Versailles, Karleen Koen takes the reader back to Louis XIV, back when the king of France, and as a result the country, was ruled by a variety of ministers, each with his own agenda. The pressure to dazzle everyone, from family to the lowliest of subjects, was great, and the need to show one’s power in the form of profligate spending was all but required. Against this backdrop comes the story of one of France’s most beloved kings, in power 200 years before the Reign of Terror would destroy his lineage.
Before Versailles opens at the onset of Louis XIV’s reign as King of France. Before he ever earned his moniker, The Sun King, he was just a young man taking tentative steps towards establishing what would later become the first absolute monarchy. As one would imagine, Louis is relatively naïve and spoiled. Yet, glimpses of his future self become evident as he struggles to wrest mastery of his kingdom away from previous ministers, especially Nicolas Fouquet. Louis earns the reader’s respect through his growth towards a self-aware king, one who is more than capable of running his country by himself.
In direct opposite to Louis’ strength of character is the multitude of women that surround him. Giddy, empty-minded, and even more naïve than Louis, the women are simply vacuous. While they are capable of manipulating men, they achieve their goals through the use of their feminine wiles, something most modern-day women can only read with disgust. While there are plenty of examples of women who use their brains to gain power and privilege for their offspring, these women are all but non-existent in Before Versailles. Their simpering, fawning, and tantrums are so excessive that it becomes difficult to stomach at times. While the reader is under no illusions that Mr. Koen is completely exaggerating the behavior of the female courtiers and royal women, their actions do take on a largely fictional quality because of their extreme natures. One looking to find a true, strong female role model in Louis’ court is going to be sorely disappointed.
The pacing of the novel is very similar, one imagines, to life within Fontainebleau. Constantly changing, the narrative changes characters as quickly and as often as Princess Henriette changes dresses. For those readers not paying close attention, it can become an exercise in confusion to discern who is involved in the current scene while remembering everything said in previous scenes. Based on Mr. Koen’s descriptions, one imagines that this is exactly what all courtiers faced – having to stay constantly vigilant and aware in an effort to stay one step ahead of other courtiers and in the king’s good graces. It can be as exhilarating an experience as it is tiresome. Having to pay such close attention for every single page in the novel can be daunting, but the experience of reading Before Versailles is much more fulfilling as a result.
Mr. Gardner’s performance was not quite what I was expecting. His is a forceful voice, leaving little room for nuance and performance. The differences in his characterization was slight, if non-existent, making it very difficult to discern who was speaking when. His French, while adding an air of authenticity, made it even more difficult to distinguish between the very large cast of characters because the names sound so similar and are spoken so rapidly. Listeners expecting variations or even emotion from Mr. Gardner will be disappointed, as there really is none. This makes the novel read a bit like a biography rather than a work of fiction. Mr. Gardner’s monotony is especially effective at minimizing the overly exaggerated emotional responses of the maids of honor and even of Princess Henriette that are so prevalent, but this muted performance does detract from the more honest sentiments expressed by Louis and other characters. Regardless of Mr. Gardner’s performance, I am not certain that Before Versailles is the right novel for audio. There are too many scene breaks and jumps in time that are unheralded by anything other than a pause to allow for smooth transitions audibly. Mr. Gardner did the best he could with the material at hand. Unfortunately, I do believe this is one novel better read in print than read aloud.
Before Versailles is interesting in the intimate look it gives at court life before there was such a thing as an absolute monarch. The plotting, the constant fawning, the politicizing of everything from accessories to the granting of favors is as shocking as it is titillating. Mr. Koen does a fantastic job capturing the exhausting excesses while utilizing some of the more well-known rumors and unsolved mysteries to advance the story. A reader finishes Before Versailles with a greater understanding of just what it meant to be among royalty, a greater appreciation for not being part of the royal family, and a growing appetite to learn more about Louis XIV.