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Book Review: The Exchange of Princesses

By (July 3, 2015) No Comment

The Exchange of Princessesthe exchange of princesses cover

by Chantal Thomas

translated from the French by John Cullen

Other Press, 2015

It’s theoretically possible for a historical novel to slot itself into the candidates for a “summer book” kind of experience, but naturally it’s tricky: “summer” readers are far weaker and more fickle than their pasty-faced year-round counterparts. If you give them too many dates or too much complexity, they tend to become skittish and bolt for the nearest cold drink or hot extra-marital bed partner. And thereby the rub: history is absolutely lousy with dates and complexity. Unless a writer does a very skillful job smoothing out a thick shag carpet of plot and dialogue over such jagged flooring, the Chianti-and-cheating crowd will sense the danger of accidentally learning something and give such books a wide berth.

It can be done. John Jakes did it with The Bastard, for instance, and there’ve been plenty of successful examples before and since. Other Press is no doubt hoping they have just such an exception to the rule with the new book from Chantal Thomas (author of 2002’s Farewell, My Queen), a potted potboiler called The Exchange of Princesses. And those hopes are well-justified: The Exchange of Princesses is a hypnotically good read, and the less you know about 18th century history, the more hypnotic the book gets.

The story is taken from history: in 1722, Philip d’Orleans, the regent of France, arranges to marry the 11-year-old king, Louis XV, to the 4-year-old daughter of King Philip V of Spain. At roughly the same time, Philip d’Orleans offers his own twelve-year-old daughter Louise Elisabeth as the wife of King Philip’s son, the Prince of Austrias. Thus, readers are abruptly drawn into the world of the War of Spanish Succession, but they need not fear the intellectual decompression ordinarily threatened by such a term: Thomas keeps things as comfortably contemporary as possible. When we follow the famed chronicler Saint-Simon to Spain, for instance, we feel his pain:

Wherever he stopped, in the most remote hamlet, out in the countryside – and the windswept expanses of Castille have nothing in common with the pleasant copses of la douche France – in places one would believe uninhabited, a song, often accompanied by a guitar, would arise, a piercing, maddening song. Most of the time, he couldn’t see the singer, but at some point the awful lament would always start up, usually out of nowhere. It sounded like something halfway between the mewing of a cat and the cries of a hysteric. And to top everything, the singers would express their torments amid exhalations of olive oil! It was enough to make you puke!

And the completely historically incidental fact that two of the key bargaining chips in this tale happened to be children is taken up in our author’s ready hands and twisted and wrung for every last drop of anachronistic sentimentality it will yield:

But also, at the other extreme, as far as you can get from cute, pricey toys, poor children who will never own a toy of any kind are tossing and turning on their pallets; the unprecedented situation – their queen is a little girl – has set them spinning. Is the reign of children at hand? Might not Louis and Mariannine, now in power, bring about their liberation? Poor children, exploited, starved, beaten, the last of the lowliest – are they to be first, as it says in the Gospel?

If passages like that don’t have your inner Gavroche pealing away like a church bell, you’re probably far too miserables for this book, which is as delicious and fizzy as a magnum of champagne and every bit as likely to induce pleasant misapprehensions of profundity. Despite the grim nature of her actual subject matter, Thomas tells a sparkling, entertaining story in The Exchange of Princesses, and she largely keeps the ‘complexity’ factor right at the level of sad, virtuous children and scheming, flawed adults. The beach-excluding intricacies of winter reading are almost never invoked in over 300 pages of prose, and the prose itself is often as crinkly and inviting as the frosting on a wedding cake.