I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher, Other Press. This was originally written and published in French and this English translation is by John Cullen
In 1721, the regent of France, Philip D’Orleans, decides that the best alliance that the eleven-year-old King Louis XV can make with Spain is through marriage. The regent proposes that Louis XV marry the princess of Spain, who is only four-years-old at the time of their betrothal. The regent will also give his own daughter, Louise Elizabeth, a moody 11- year-old girl, to the Prince of Spain, also just a boy of 12, as a show of good faith. If you are already confused about names and ages then please don’t let that discourage from reading the book; I was confused in the beginning as well but the author does a good job of repeating the names and making the characters clear and distinct. In 1722, both princesses set out on a long and arduous trek on the unpaved and rough roads between France and Spain. The princesses are exchanged on the middle of the journey and each one proceeds to her new home and position.
My favorite part of the book is reading about the four-year-old Spanish princess; like any little girl she loves her dolls, playing games, and being lavished with attention. She is talkative and precocious and all of France and the French court becomes smitten with this charming little girl. The author describes the very adult tasks that she must endure such as receiving ambassadors from foreign countries and attending balls in her honor. At one such ceremony the little infanta is described as sucking on her thumb and clutching her favorite doll while a group of academics from the University of Paris pay their respects to her. The only one who is not taken in by the charms of the princess is her own husband, King Louis XV.
Things do not go quite as smoothly as Philip D’Orleans had expected as far as these arranged marriages are concerned. But, what did the regent expect when he decided to base political alliances on the lives of children? Even though the little princess, Marianna Victoria, is a delightful four-year-old, her future husband, the king, is a jealous and petty eleven-year-old boy who is very upset that his nanny is now taking care of his future bride. As he grows up he has no interest, whatsoever in spending any time with her or getting to know her. The infanta, on the other hand, worships the king and is so thrilled whenever he is around her.
Meanwhile, in Spain the roles are reversed as Louise Elizabeth, the future Queen of Spain, wants nothing to do with her husband Don Luis. The future King of Spain is so thrilled to have a pretty wife and he wants nothing more than to consummate their marriage. But Louise Elizabeth does everything she can to keep the Prince away from her. I don’t want to give too much away, but nothing works out in the end as the regent had intended.
The Exchange of Princesses actually reads more like a non-fiction history book than an historical fiction. The author uses real letters from the characters involved as well as newspaper articles from the time period. There are great details about ceremonies, details of palaces and descriptions of costumes. If you are looking for a fast-paced, exciting historical fiction novel then this is not the book to read. However, if you want to learn something about the political situation between France and Spain during the 18th century and the players involved then this well-researched novel is the perfect choice.
About The Author:
Thomas was born in Lyon in 1945, and was raised in Arcachon, Bordeaux, and Paris. Her life has included teaching jobs at American and French universities (such as Yale and Princeton) as well as a publishing career. She has published nineteen works, including essays on the Marquis de Sade, Casanova, and Marie Antoinette.
In 2002, Thomas published Les adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen). The novel gave a fictional account of the final days of Marie Antoinette in power through the perspective of one of her servants. It won the Prix Femina in 2002, and was later adapted into the 2012 film Farewell, My Queen. The film stars Diane Kruger as the titular queen and Léa Seydoux as her servant Sidonie Laborde. Thomas co-wrote the screenplay,and it opened the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. Helen Falconer of The Guardian called the work “a well written slice of history” with “evocative, observant prose,” but criticized it for creating a narrator who “merely provides us with a pair of eyes to see through rather than capturing our interest in her own right.” While disagreeing in its classification as a novel, Falconer did however add that Farewell, My Queen “generates in the reader a real sense of being a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the affairs of the great and the not so good.”
Thomas is currently the director of research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.