August 09, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it a B

What was Marie Antoinette thinking as she faced the guillotine? Probably nothing so pretty as the pensees in Kathryn Davis’ impressionistic fifth novel, Versailles, which imagines being inside the young French queen’s head just before — and after — the chopping block.

In exquisite, life-flashing-before-her-eyes episodes, she describes her mostly platonic marriage to King Louis XVI and defends her extravagances during France’s famine years. Interwoven throughout are luxurious tours of Versailles’ gilt-and-marble chambers, along with little playlike dialogues among scullery maids and courtiers. Though Davis aims for tragedy, the book — like Versailles itself — is so ornately stylized it feels emotionally cool.

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