I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by OTHER PressLLC on 2015-07-07
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Literary
Set in the French and Spanish courts of the eighteenth century, this novel is based on a true story about the fate of two young princesses caught in the intrigues and secrets of the moment 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 decides to marry eleven-year-old Louis XV to the daughter of Philippe V of Spain, who is only four. Orléans hopes this will tie his kingdom to Spain. But were Louis to die without begetting an heir--the likeliness of which is greatly increased by having a child bride--Orléans himself would finally be king. Orléans tosses his own daughter into the bargain, the twelve-year-old Mlle de Montpensier, who will marry the Prince of Asturias, the heir to the Spanish throne. The Spanish court enthusiastically agrees and arrangements are made. The two nations trade their princesses in a grand ceremony in 1722, making bonds that should end the historical conflict. Nothing turns out as expected.
Before beginning, I wanted to note I received this review from the publisher, The Other Press, which has no effect on my review. This book is set to be released in the United States on July 7, 2015.
The Exchange of Princesses is a historical fiction by Chantal Thomas set in France and Spain, 1720s. The main characters of focus include: Louis XV (to become King of France) and Luis I (to become King of Spain); and the princesses Mariana Victoria de Borbón (to become the Queen-infanta of France) and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans (to become Queen of Spain).
The story is one of: politics, scandal, love, hope, passiveness, deceit, and a touch of disease thrown in during this tumultuous time of history in the two countries. The Exchange of Princesses started off so politically with the marrying off of children (the two princesses; one of whom was only four years old) and the crossing of the border between France and Spain to exchange the two of them. The children did not seem to grasp the full meaning of this exchange at first. It was so interesting to compare the attitudes of the children with those of the parents during the performance of the exchange.
It took me a couple of chapters to adjust to the writing style (it is a book that has been translated by John Cullen from the French) and to pair out the characters. It may have helped if I had a background in French or French history from this period to help with the titles and small formalities, but after a few short chapters in, that was no longer an issue for me. I found myself enjoying the book and especially looked forward to reading the chapters on the infanta, whom I had grown attached to.
It was startling for me to discover how protected these princesses were from the outside world, which added to the comprehension of the politics behind their marriages off. In one chapter on the infanta, it was noted in her travels that she would cover her eyes from the outside world of her carriage because “[t]he outside world is too ugly.” (61) This line really caught me and caused me to linger for a moment on the page. Leading up to the exchange of princesses itself, it was so ceremonious. Within seconds, it was over as the princesses crossed each others’ path over the border of the two countries.
Continuing the read, Thomas alternated chapters between Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth. Following each character and their interactions with their princesses (soon to become Kings) and their new surroundings, I started to sense the difference in relationship perceptions of the princesses and their future kings. For example, when reading the infanta’s chapters I sensed the child-innocence and the little girl’s infatuation with her future husband and King. She was the youngest of the four (and her betrothed was eleven).
As the story progressed, I discovered the relationships and behaviors were not all that was hoped for in each relationship. Could two people in a political arrangement come to love each other? Would the age difference have any effect? How would these exchanges affect the futures of the two countries? For myself and other readers, did one feel sympathy for the two princesses, the kings, or the couples in general? The story was a fascinating one. Thomas did a wonderful job transitioning between the two princesses and their developing situations. I found myself growing attached to the book as I continued to read and infatuated with how the story would end and what would happen to the two relationships.
Outside of the formalities, the writing was different – more straight-forward and to the story. Whether this was with the translator or the original story, I cannot say. But I found it easy to play the story out in my head and attach myself to certain characters. (I may have almost cried at one point too…) In the end, there was a note on the sources from the author, including the fact that “[a]ll of the extracts and correspondences quoted in this book are authentic.” I appreciated this addition and found the history-lover in me grow all the more attached with the book. One thing I would have liked to have seen, although I do know I had the “Advance Uncorrected Proof” copy that was not for sale, was the addition of footnotes. To see where these sources came from and piece out what exactly were the authentic quotes would have been more enjoyable and helpful for me. Following this author’s note was also a brief history of the main characters (the two Kings and two Queens). I loved this addition as well – it allowed for both a good history refresher as well as a satisfying end to their stories. Do not read these until you have finished reading the book itself or the story will be spoiled.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing style took me a moment to adjust to, but once I did I found it difficult to put the book down. It was a tale of politics and arrangements, differences in emotions and in how things can be unpredictable and be changed. I have already recommended this book to two friends I think would enjoy the story very much. I cannot wait for the book to be released in the U.S. this July and see what others have to say. For me, it was a captivating, refreshingly different, and a unique read I will continue to recommend for both the historical fiction lover and the casual reader.