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Thanksgiving Recipes: Laura McHugh’s Grandma’s Stuffing

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014

This week, we’ve invited a few of our authors to share their favorite Thanksgiving recipes with you. Whether they’re family tradition or the product of a frantic internet search, we’re excited to hear and share with you what these writers have on their tables on this holiday season. Today, Laura McHugh, author of The Weight of Blood, shares her grandmother’s recipe for stuffing (my personal favorite part of Thanksgiving!).

My grandma passed away just after I graduated from college, and I’ve now lived half of my life without her. That doesn’t seem possible, as she is with me each day in a hundred small ways, andmchugh_grandma[1]especially in the kitchen: her dented measuring cup; the rolling pin with the broken handle.

Every Thanksgiving we make Grandma’s stuffing, and we do our best to get it right. She never wrote down her recipe, so we work from memory. It is a group effort. My sisters and I hover around the stove like a team of surgeons about to perform a risky operation. Our brothers stand back, requesting status updates and begging us not to screw up. We remind each other to be generous with the sage, to mix in the egg with bare hands. We fret over turkey drippings. We always think we won’t have enough bread and we always end up with too much.

When it comes out of the oven, I take a test bite, hoping that it will transport me back to my grandma’s tiny kitchen in Keokuk, Iowa, where she let us tear the bread and crack the eggs. When the stuffing turns out right, there is nothing better. We serve it with reverence, like communion wafers. We rejoice as though we have done something miraculous. We eat the scraps left on our children’s plates—they don’t quite grasp its importance. When it is right, it is more than stuffing; it is a certain kind of magic, like Grandma is still with us at the table.

Recipe: Grandma’s Stuffing

1 loaf of dried or toasted white bread

1 small onion, chopped

1 stalk of celery, chopped

2 eggs

Turkey drippings

Dried sage

Salt and peppermchugh_stuffing[1]

Tear the bread into pieces and place in a baking dish (kids love to help with this part!). Sprinkle a generous amount of sage over the bread. Cook onion and celery until tender. In a mixing bowl,combine cooked onion and celery with two beaten eggs, more sage, and a little salt and pepper. Add this to the bread and mix with your hands. Pour turkey drippings over the stuffing, adding enough to make the bread moist, but not soggy. Feel free to sprinkle on some more sage, because Grandma was right, you can never have too much. Bake approximately 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Request a live chat with bestselling author Lisa See for you and your book club!

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Lisa See credit  Patricia WilliamsChina-Dolls
In her beloved bestsellers Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, and, most recently, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, Lisa See has brilliantly illuminated the strong bonds between women, romantic love, and love of country. Now, in the New York Times bestselling book CHINA DOLLS, which is about Asian-American nightclub performers of the 1930s and 1940s, she returns to these timeless themes. The San Francisco Chronicle praised the novel, stating,“China Dolls plunges us into a fascinating history and offers an accessible meditation on themes that are still urgent in our contemporary world. The women’s story explores burning questions about the possibilities of friendship, the profound effects of betrayal, the horrors of prejudice and the nature of ambition—especially female ambition. . . . These Asian artists were true pioneers, breaking ground, chasing vast dreams, subverting stereotypes simply by appearing onstage against the odds. Here, in CHINA DOLLS, they have found another stage of sorts, another place to rightfully shine.” The Washington Post said,“This emotional, informative and brilliant page-turner resonates with resilience and humanity,” while O Magazine called CHINA DOLLS “a spellbinding portrait of a time burning with opportunity and mystery.”

Lisa’s novels make excellent book club discussions, and now you can request Lisa to join your club meeting with a live chat!

Just fill out the form below with your request. We’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

To learn more about Lisa See and her books, visit LisaSee.com
Find Lisa on Facebook and Twitter.

Enter for your chance to win a copy of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce

Monday, August 13th, 2012

Joyce_Harold Fry “When it seems almost too late, Harold Fry opens his battered heart and lets the world rush in. This funny, poignant story about an ordinary man on an extraordinary journey moved and inspired me.”—Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank

Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live.

Still in his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold embarks on his urgent quest across the countryside. Along the way he meets one fascinating character after another, each of whom unlocks his long-dormant spirit and sense of promise. Memories of his first dance with Maureen, his wedding day, his joy in fatherhood, come rushing back to him—allowing him to also reconcile the losses and the regrets. As for Maureen, she finds herself missing Harold for the first time in years.

And then there is the unfinished business with Queenie Hennessy.

A novel of unsentimental charm, humor, and profound insight into the thoughts and feelings we all bury deep within our hearts, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry introduces Rachel Joyce as a wise—and utterly irresistible—storyteller.

Visit Rachel Joyce’s Website

Enter to win a copy of Diana Gabaldon’s THE SCOTTISH PRISONER

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

A captivating return to the world Diana Gabaldon created in her Outlander and Lord John series, The Scottish Prisoner is a masterpiece of epic history, wicked deceit, and scores that can only be settled in blood.

London, 1760. For Jamie Fraser, paroled prisoner-of-war, life is coming apart at the seams. In the remote Lake District, where he’s close enough to the son he cannot claim as his own, Jamie’s quiet existence is interrupted first by dreams of his lost wife, then by the appearance of an erstwhile comrade still fighting to rally the Irish. But Jamie has sworn off politics, fighting, and war. Until Lord John Grey shows up with a summons that will take him away from everything he loves—again. Lord John is in possession of explosive documents that expose a damning case of corruption against a British officer. But they also hint at a more insidious danger. Soon Lord John and Jamie are unwilling companions on the road to Ireland, a country whose dark castles hold dreadful secrets, and whose bogs hide the bones of the dead.
Gabaldon_Scottish Prisoner

A conversation between Anna Quindlen and Diane Keaton

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Keaton_Then AgainAnna Quindlen: The first thing I have to ask you about is the structure of the book, because it’s so much more like the way we think about things, as opposed to the linear way in which books like this are usually constructed. I kept wondering whether you pictured it that way from the beginning or if that’s what developed as you were writing.

Diane Keaton: It kind of goes back to the idea of collage. I had mountains of correspondence, my mother’s endless journals, my father’s few letters, scrapbooks, photo albums, and my own half-baked journals. I didn’t really have an approach. I just randomly started reading one of Mother’s journals. After I finished it, I found one of my own I had written the same year. So I read that too. Then I started editing Mom down, then me, and after that I began to write in response to both of us. I began to compare and contrast our lives. It helped. The book became a kind of editorial process
I felt comfortable with. Of course, the result was a mess, but I sent it to my editor, David Ebershoff, anyway. He would encourage me and always say, “Diane, remember, writing is rewriting.” I took his advice. Rewriting was like memorizing a script; I just kept going over it, and over it and over it again. It was like the old Repetition Game I learned when I was studying acting with Sandy Meisner—you keep repeating until something new comes. Part of the Repetition Game requires spontaneous response to your partner’s behavior. It was easy to respond to my mother. She was the most important person in my life.

AQ: Were you astonished when you realized how much writing your mother had done on her own without any thought of publication or pay?

DK: I think about it all the time. I think, “What would it be like if I had read the journals before she was gone, before I started to write Then Again?” I miss her. Now that I know so much more about her intimate experiences and longings, it breaks my heart. (more…)

Win ELIZABETH THE QUEEN in time for Mother’s Day

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Smith_Elizabeth the QueenStill looking for the perfect Mother’s Day gift?  Haven’t had time to go shopping?  Well, look no more because Random House Reader’s Circle brings you a late-breaking giveaway with the chance to win a copy of ELIZABETH THE QUEEN by Sally Bedell Smith just in time for May 13th.

Copies of the book will be sent overnight to your address so you will receive them with enough time left to put a bow on it.  Enter here for your chance to win.

About the book: In this magisterial new biography, New York Times bestselling author Sally Bedell Smith brings to life one of the world’s most fascinating and enigmatic women: Queen Elizabeth II.

From the moment of her ascension to the throne in 1952 at the age of twenty-five, Queen Elizabeth II has been the object of unparalleled scrutiny. But through the fog of glamour and gossip, how well do we really know the world’s most famous monarch? Drawing on numerous interviews and never-before-revealed documents, acclaimed biographer Sally Bedell Smith pulls back the curtain to show in intimate detail the public and private lives of Queen Elizabeth II, who has led her country and Commonwealth through the wars and upheavals of the last sixty years with unparalleled composure, intelligence, and grace.

In ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, we meet the young girl who suddenly becomes “heiress presumptive” when her uncle abdicates the throne. We meet the thirteen-year-old Lilibet as she falls in love with a young navy cadet named Philip and becomes determined to marry him, even though her parents prefer wealthier English aristocrats. We see the teenage Lilibet repairing army trucks during World War II and standing with Winston Churchill on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on V-E Day. We see the young Queen struggling to balance the demands of her job with her role as the mother of two young children. Sally Bedell Smith brings us inside the palace doors and into the Queen’s daily routines—the “red boxes” of documents she reviews each day, the weekly meetings she has had with twelve prime ministers, her physically demanding tours abroad, and the constant scrutiny of the press—as well as her personal relationships: with Prince Philip, her husband of sixty-four years and the love of her life; her children and their often-disastrous marriages; her grandchildren and friends.

Compulsively readable and scrupulously researched, ELIZABETH THE QUEEN is a close-up view of a woman we’ve known only from a distance, illuminating the lively personality, sense of humor, and canny intelligence with which she meets the most demanding work and family obligations. It is also a fascinating window into life at the center of the last great monarchy.

Enter Here

Deborah Moggach, author of THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL, on Writing

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

Moggach_Best Exotic Marigold HotelDeborah Moggach is the author of sixteen successful novels including most recently THESE FOOLISH THINGS and the best-selling TULIP FEVER. No stranger to on-screen entertainment, she wrote the screenplays for the film of “Pride and Prejudice” and TV’s acclaimed “Love in a Cold Climate.” Here, she shares the tale of the beginning of her novel THESE FOOLISH THINGS, which is now hitting the big screen as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” starring Judi Dench with Word & Film.

I’ve written many novels but this one started somewhat differently. Usually my books are triggered by some conversation, by a painting, by the sight of somebody in the street. This one originated in a big, almost political idea: Who’s going to care for us when we get older? We all know that the developed world has an ageing population and there’s not enough money to pay for us all – we’re living too damn long and we’re going to bankrupt our economy. Mulling this over, I had an idea: We outsource everything else, so why not outsource the elderly? India struck me as the perfect place. It’s warm – very good for arthritic bones; it’s cheap; English is widely spoken; old people are treated with respect there and are part of society, not shunted off into care homes; flights are now very affordable and families are so globalized that grandchildren are just as likely to visit us in India as anywhere else – more so, in fact, as India is so exotic and interesting. Really, what’s not to like?

Want to read more?  Visit Word & Film for more from Deborah Moggach.


Tuesday, April 24th, 2012

Quindlen_Lots of CandlesDiscussion Questions for LOTS OF CANDLES, PLENTY OF CAKE

1. In the opening lines of the book, Anna Quindlen says about the arc of her life: “First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone, and became her.” Looking back over your own life, do you identify with Quindlen’s experience? Do you think you’ve “invented” yourself as you’ve grown older, or become who you always were? And how would you differentiate between the two?

2. Anna Quindlen loves everything about books—from the musty smell of old bookstores, to the excuse reading provides to be alone. Books, she writes, “make us feel as though we’re connected, as though the thoughts and feelings we believe are singular and sometimes nutty are shared by others, that we are all more alike than different.” What do you most love about books? Be specific: Is it the entertainment, the escape, the sense of connection? Something else entirely?

3. Anna writes hilariously about the small white lies—the cost of a kitchen renovation, for example—that can keep a marriage healthy. Do you agree? If so, fess up: Which of your innocent fibs do you think has spared your relationship the most grief?

4. Anna tells her children that “the single most important decision they will make…[is] who they will marry.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Anna calls girlfriends “the joists that hold up the house of our existence,” and believes that they become more and more important to us as we grow older. Have you found this to be true? If so, why do you think that’s the case? What do you think close girlfriends offer that a spouse cannot? (more…)

A Reader’s Guide: Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Juliet Grey on Writing

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow

A Reader’s Guide

Grey_Days of Splendor, Days of SorrowIt provided great pleasure, but also left me with a measure of sadness, to continue the story of Marie Antoinette’s life in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, because of course we know the tragic denouement. I felt that part of my role in this middle novel in the trilogy was to show how Marie Antoinette’s journey continued along its fatal path. It’s clear from the book’s epigraph, taken from a quote at the time she ascended to the throne as the queen consort of Louis XVI, that she was considered a liability. Add that to all the animosity that had built up against her, particularly within the French court, during the four years she was dauphine—an effervescent teenage girl making enemies right and left as she pushed with all her might against the rigid etiquette of Versailles.

One can go back even further to the 950 years of enmity that existed between France and Marie Antoinette’s native Austria, a political albatross hung around her pale and slender neck almost as soon as her betrothal to the future Louis XVI was arranged. When her mother, the Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, sent her to France in April 1770, she exhorted her youngest daughter to make the French love her. With a few notable exceptions, that admiration came mostly during the late reign of Louis XV, who by then was roundly despised by his subjects. The charming (and morally upright) strawberry-blond dauphine and her husband were seen as the great young hopes for France’s future.

But Marie Antoinette’s popularity soon faded as the propa- ganda spread that she was not comporting herself with the dignity of a French queen and was, moreover, behaving like a royal mistress by decking herself out in increasingly elaborate jewels, gowns, and other accoutrements such as the outrageous (and outrageously expensive) towering “pouf” coiffures. Her subjects, convinced by propaganda disseminated from within Versailles itself, published by nobles she had angered by ostracizing them from her intimate circle, soon saw her as the queen of excess.

Marie Antoinette’s behavior predates the study and practice of psychoanalysis, but in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow I aimed to convey the genesis of her extravagance and what lay behind her increasing mania for pleasure. It was of course primarily a substitute for what she most desired—a child, especially a son and heir—not only for the security of the Bourbon dynasty, but be- cause she adored children. Her life might have taken a different trajectory had she conceived early in her marriage. Instead, her first child, a daughter, was born in the waning days of 1778, a frustrating and embarrassing eight and a half years after her nuptials—ample time for her enemies to recast the religiously devout and faithfully wed young queen as a promiscuous hedonist.

What happened on her wedding night was immortalized by Louis in his hunting journal with a single word: rien. Nothing—although the reference was really a notation that the bridegroom had not killed any woodland creatures that day because he’d not gone hunting. Not only was Louis shy and uncomfortable around his new bride, but he may have suffered from a mild deformity of the penis known as phimosis, where the foreskin is too tight to retract. This condition made intercourse, and even an erection, painful.

Historians’ opinions are divided as to whether Louis suffered from phimosis and underwent a minor procedure (not as radical as circumcision) in late 1773 to correct the defect (for narrative reasons I placed the event in 1774, after he became king); or whether his inability to make love to Marie Antoinette was purely psychological or psychosomatic. The latter is harder to believe because Louis admitted that he both loved and respected Marie An- toinette and found her very beautiful. While a number of present-day scholars vehemently dispute the phimosis speculation as being the pet theory of Marie Antoinette’s twentieth-century biographer, the Freudian Stefan Zweig, they cannot explain away the preponderance of correspondence that came out of the Bourbon court at the time. This included not merely the dispatch from the Spanish ambassador to his sovereign graphically discussing the issue of Louis’s penis (which could be dismissed as gossip), but a number of letters written between Marie Antoinette and her mother discussing whether or not Louis was prepared to submit to the operation, and the medical opinions of the various court physicians on the subject. The language of that correspondence most clearly refers to a physical problem. Whether it was compounded by psychological and emotional issues is also a possibility. Unfortunately, Louis’s boyhood tutor, the duc de la Vauguyon, had instilled in him a hatred of women and a particular distrust of Austrian females. But by 1773, the dauphin and dauphine had become close friends, and presented a united front against the duc’s malevolent influence. This was even truer by the time they ascended the throne in 1774.

The subject of Louis’s phimosis and how it was treated is one of a couple of controversial topics I explore in this novel. I do believe that he suffered from a mild physical deformity and that he underwent a corrective procedure. The operation detailed in the novel is taken from a procedure performed in France around 1780 so it is about as accurate a description as one can get of what Louis’s medical treatment might have been like.

Another of my aims in writing the Marie Antoinette trilogy was to convey the humanity (and sometimes not) within these historical figures. Too often they have been depicted in film and literature as archetypes, stereotypes, or dusty relics of an era long past. As I breathed life into characters who to some readers may be little more than names from a history book, I saw them as vibrant and vital, complex and flawed. It was also my intention to depict some of the lesser-known (but equally fact-based) events of their lives. For example, the silk merchants of Lyon really did pay a call on Mesdames asking for their support after Marie Antoi- nette began to dress almost entirely in the muslin gaulles; Marie Antoinette really did suffer a terrible fall and hit her head, and Madame Royale’s shocking reaction to her mother’s injury, as well as the conversation she had with her father about whether he would have preferred a son instead of her, really happened. I was stunned when I first read about the incident in the many biographies because it revealed so much about the characters of the precocious and envious Madame Royale and the king, who was a tremendously sentimental man. Louis indeed adored his little girl from the moment of her birth and never resented her gender, de- spite the immense pressure upon both him and Marie Antoinette to produce a son and heir. The fact that both of them were such sentimental, vulnerable, and fairly hands-on parents made them quite anomalous, especially for royals, even in the Age of Enlightenment. In another fascinating moment “ripped from real life,” the queen did indeed summon Jean-Louis Fargeon to le Petit Trianon to create a perfume that captured the essence of her private idyll (I own a replica of the fresh, floral scent, which made my research all the more redolent!). And she did ask Fargeon to develop a unique fragrance for a man she described as “virile as one can possibly be,” that phrase, in translation of course, taken from the perfumer’s own diary. In a subsequent event, to be depicted in The Last October Sky, the third novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, many years later the aroma of that custom-made toilet water will come back to haunt Fargeon’s nostrils.

One of the central aspects of this novel is the developing relationship between Count Axel von Fersen and Marie Antoinette. Historically, there has been some controversy as to how far it went, whether it remained strictly platonic, whether (and when) it may have blossomed into a physical love affair, and whether Marie Antoinette ever violated her deeply held marriage vows and consummated her passion for Fersen.

I have a cardinal rule about writing historical fiction: If it could have happened, bolstered by solid research, then it’s fair game to be included in a novel. Stanley Loomis, in The Fatal Friendship: Marie Antoinette, Count Fersen, and the Flight to Varennes, offers enough compelling evidence for a relationship between them that may indeed have eventually been consummated. Biographers Antonia Fraser, Stefan Zweig, Vincent Cronin, and André Castelot share that opinion. We have the culture of the eighteenth century to thank for the plethora of diaries and memoirs left to posterity. Some may be more reliable than others. After Marie Antoinette’s death, Fersen’s beloved sister Sophie, to whom he was especially close, burned a number of his letters; and at some point (perhaps after his gruesome murder on June 20, 1810, which took place exactly nineteen years to the day from the royal family’s fateful flight to Varennes in June of 1791, an event that will be dramatized in The Last October Sky), his diaries were heavily redacted. However, enough of Fersen’s own words remain to obliquely hint at a relationship with Marie Antoinette that went far deeper than the proper bounds of a common friendship. We have his declaration to Sophie that he would never wed because he could not be united with the one woman he really loved and who loved him in return. As historians cannot document any abiding yet for some reason inappropriate or equally illicit relationship with another woman (his other love affairs, regardless of their duration, were fairly inconsequential by comparison), the conclusion is viable (certainly by a novelist), that he gave his heart and soul (and the case can be made for giving his body) to Marie Antoinette.

There is no denying that Fersen risked his life more than once to save the queen—and the king, of course, whom he also admired, possibly making his transgression all the more guilt-inducing.

The events that I used to build the relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen are rooted in fact. As for the issue of privacy in a royal court, Marie Antoinette, who detested being surrounded by an enormous entourage while she was dauphine, immediately changed the rules when she became queen, reducing the size of her retinue (most of whom had been assigned to her upon her arrival in 1770) to a handful of trusted attendants. Moreover, she was roundly criticized for turning le Petit Trianon into her exclusive haven. Whereas Versailles had traditionally been open to the people, she had signage posted on the gates of her little château and about its acreage stipulating that entrance to the premises was by permission of the queen alone, and that all visitors had to be escorted inside by her servants or attendants.

The existence of the mechanical mirrored window shades that closed off the view inside to all would-be trespassers or intruders, who would find themselves staring at their own reflec- tions if they dared to pry, is a fact. At le Petit Trianon, therefore, it was simple enough to dismiss the servants from a room, to enjoy private tête-à-têtes with her confidants of both sexes, or even with a room full of people. It was precisely this exclusivity, and the maddening notion that all sorts of goings-on were taking place at le Petit Trianon to which they were not invited, which gave rise to the rumors spread by her detractors of Marie Antoi- nette’s rampant debauchery there. Ironic, isn’t it, how the very aristocrats who derided the queen for having a personal fairyland were so desperate to secure an invitation. They never received one because Marie Antoinette, who knew what was being said about her, did not feel the need to surround herself with, in twenty-first-century parlance, “toxic” people.

But le Petit Trianon was indeed a private idyll where Marie Antoinette could truly be herself. Insofar as being able to consummate a romance there with Axel von Fersen, a lawyer would no doubt concede that she had both motive and opportunity.

The more I considered what is essentially a love triangle with the queen at its apex (because I do believe that by the time Axel returned to France in 1778 Marie Antoinette and Louis had grown to love each other in a quiet, solid way), the more the three of them began to remind me of another trio of royals: King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. Although those archetypal characters (who may have been actual historical figures) are En- glish, their story was first set down by Chrétien de Troyes, a French romance writer in the Middle Ages. The elements of Guinevere and Lancelot’s star-crossed love affair, and their shared affection for Arthur, as well as Arthur’s deep respect for Lancelot, are also present in the Louis/Antoinette/Fersen triangle.

At bottom is a very human dynamic that has played itself out countless times in myriad marriages, along with the woman’s struggle to reconcile the parts of herself that are satisfied by each of the men: the physical passion she finds with a handsome soul mate, and the solidity and devotion of a faithful husband to whom she is not sexually attracted. She must also battle the demons of guilt, betrayal, and remorse that cannot fail to rear their gargoyle-like heads once she has made the difficult decision to violate the marriage vows she had previously held so sacred.

Although Marie Antoinette was raised from the cradle to despise adulterers (because her father had a mistress, a relationship that deeply wounded her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa), I believe she ultimately became one. I imagine the emotional cost (not to mention the obvious risks) must have been enormous for her, to have spent her entire life up to a point with an unshakable view that is finally shattered by her own volition.

As to the famous Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the French system of justice at the time worked in a fairly arcane manner. Defendants were arrested and incarcerated without being told what they were accused of or who their accusers were. They could hire lawyers but their attorneys were not permitted to be present during the inquisitions; they could only publish trial briefs which were based on hearsay (and which in this case were truly sensational). These trial briefs were little more than professionally penned scandal sheets that sought to exonerate their cli- ents by influencing not only the magistrates of the Parlement, the region’s judicial body, but the public as well—a public that was entirely ignorant of the facts of the case being investigated and tried.

To answer the inevitable question, “How many of the events of this book really happened?” nearly all of them are based on the historical record, both the larger picture as well as many of the more intimate details regarding the events of the characters’ interrelationships, with the exception of the sexual relationship between Marie Antoinette and Axel von Fersen, where, as a novelist, I chose to explore the possibility propounded by numerous biographers that their friendship blossomed into an affair. Although this position is controversial, when all is said and done, Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow is a work of historical fiction.

Yet their friendship, as well as the other interrelationships in the novel, has been thoroughly researched. In some instances I even put actual quotes into my characters’ mouths; die-hard Marie Antoinette aficionados may spot them. To that end, much of the correspondence in the novel is based on the genuine letters as well. In a couple of cases I moved things around; for example, the letter that opens chapter four was in reality written exactly a year earlier. And with regard to the events leading up to and surrounding the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, the movements of the key and supporting players are so complicated they could merit an entire novel of their own. So I truncated the timeline just a bit and excised a few of the supernumeraries because they weren’t germane to Marie Antoinette’s knowledge of events.

For narrative flow, I also combined the circumstances of two of Marie Antoinette’s miscarriages into a single tragedy. In actuality, the miscarriage brought on by the coach ride was a separate incident from the one that occurred on her birthday. And Marie Antoinette’s renovation of rooms within her own apartment at Versailles for Axel von Fersen, complete with a Swedish stove, occurred in October 1787, rather than during the spring.

A third aim in writing Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow was to set forth some of the real reasons France was financially bankrupt by the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789. Discontent had existed for well over a generation—for several decades, in fact, going all the way back to Louis XV’s expenditures on the Seven Years’ War (1756–63); although it was his mistresses’ ex- travagances, particularly those of Madame de Pompadour, that angered the French just as much because these were tangible, vis- ible reflections of excess: the clothes, the jewels, the amount of money lavished on furnishings and interior design, and of course the construction of le Petit Trianon, which later became a code phrase for the debauchery that was corrupting the nation, thanks to the outrageous behavior that the anti–Marie Antoinette propa- gandists ascribed to the queen.

Both Louis XV and Louis XVI emptied the treasury to fight foreign wars, which cost the French exponentially more than any royal mistress (or Marie Antoinette) ever spent, even at the zenith of their acquisitiveness. Americans might want to look long and hard at this period of history because if Louis XVI had not supplied the colonists with so much financial and military aid, including providing soldiers, sailors, and ships, throwing the might of France’s navy into their struggle for liberty, the British might have ultimately prevailed.

This decision cost the French crown in more ways than one. Many of their aristocrats fighting in North America returned not only victorious, but infused with the spirit of liberty, watering the seedlings that had already begun to sprout in the fashionable salons and coffeehouses of Paris and behind the gilded paneling of the Palais Royal—spearheaded by the king’s cousins, the duc d’Orléans and his son, the even more ambitious duc de Chartres, who inherited his father’s title in 1785. Their radical ideas were bolstered by the writings of the French philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who suggested that all men had equal rights under God, no matter the circumstances of their birth.

By July 14, 1789, the storm clouds of revolution had already gathered over Paris, but just a few leagues away at Versailles, the monarchs were convinced that the republican fervor was no more than a temporary ill wind. How they met the realization that the world as they had always known it was changing all about them, with a velocity they neither predicted nor were equipped to handle, will be dramatized in the final novel of the Marie Antoinette trilogy, The Last October Sky.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. France and Austria had been at odds for more than 950 years by the time Marie Antoinette married Louis. This was a huge weight to bear at the age of fourteen. In what other ways was her marriage to Louis troubled before she even moved to France?

2. “I am terrified of being bored” and “I felt so useless.” These statements seem to be at the root of Marie Antoinette’s struggles. Do you think that if she’d been able to have children earlier in her marriage this general sense of ennui would have been as prevalent? In what ways do you imagine things in the royal world would have been different if she had been able sooner to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother?

3. Marie Antoinette comments that she felt pressure to keep up with the fashion and luxury of Paris. Do you think that she ever felt truly guilty about her overspending and debt-accruing ways? Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? What parallels do you see between the financial troubles in France and those of the United States and other countries today? What about the political climate?

4. Do you think that Marie Antoinette’s interest in getting involved in the politics of the monarchy was a direct result of the problems that she and Louis had in their marriage? Was Marie Antoinette too strong-willed for Louis? Was Louis threatened by her? How did you interpret the dynamics of their relationship?

5. In what ways was le Petit Trianon a symbol of who Marie Antoinette was? If she had been more open to interacting with the public, do you think she would she have ended up so alienated from her people?

6. Were you cheering for Marie Antoinette’s kiss with Count Axel von Fersen or did you feel that she should have been loyal to her husband regardless of their problems? Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow takes a controversial approach in positing, based on circumstance and some of Axel’s letters to his sister, that Marie Antoinette and Axel consummated their affaire de coeur. What do you think really happened?

7. At the zoo, Marie Antoinette says that the tiger is her favorite animal there because it reminded her of her mother. If her mother is a tiger, what kind of animal would Marie Antoinette be? What kind of animal do you think that she herself would identify with?

8. In what ways were Marie Antoinette and Louis alike? In what ways were they different?

9. Do you think the punishments meted out to Jeanne de Lamotte-Valois, her husband, and Cardinal de Rohan following the Affair of the Diamond Necklace were just? Were you surprised by how easy it was for Marie Antoinette’s detractors to convince the public that she was at fault?

10. “I will not believe that Frenchmen would rebel against the Crown,” Louis says. How do you think he was able to remain so naïve about what would happen to France?

11. Do you think the French Revolution was inevitable? If there was any one moment at which Louis and his advisors could have turned the tide of public opinion, what was it? After reading Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow, how much responsibility for the revolution do you attribute to Marie Antoinette’s actions?

12. What scene in Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow surprised you most? Do you feel more sympathetic toward Marie Antoinette than you did before reading this novel? Why or why not?

Read a letter from Jennifer duBois, author of A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Jennifer_DuBois_credit_Ilana-Panich-LinsmanMy father became ill with Alzheimer’s disease when I was twelve, so I grew up thinking a lot about the ways in which we are summoned or driven to behave when we’re fighting a battle with a pre-ordained outcome. What does a situation like that demand of us? What, perhaps, can it give us? I watched my mother take care of my father over the course of his thirteen-year decline with an astounding amount of devotion—a devotion that baffled people sometimes, since there was no turning the disease around, and, at a certain point, no way of knowing what my father was experiencing. Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease takes a particular kind of strength, I think—not only because the person is never going to get better, but also because he is not going to be able to register or remember what you’re doing for him. Your love becomes utterly solitary. The courage that my mother exhibited over those years was so quiet, so bottomless, so often unacknowledged. And, in a narrow sense, one might consider it futile: after all, my father was going to die whether he was shaved every day or not. But I’ve come to believe that, in a broader sense, that kind of bravery is the most important quality humans have going. It enables our existence, after all; it’s shared by anyone who finds joy and meaning in a finite life.
A Partial History of Lost Causes follows two characters whose situations require extraordinary amounts of this sort of strength. Aleksandr Bezetov is a chess champion turned political dissident running an improbable presidential campaign against Vladimir Putin; Irina Ellison is a young woman with Huntington’s disease who rouses herself from her post-diagnosis inertia by going to St. Petersburg and joining Aleksandr’s cause. Both characters struggle with the value of waging battles that are probably—or certainly—not winnable, and both characters can be fatalistic at times. But I hope that the book subverts their fatalism in many ways, from the characters’ attention to the beauty of the world around them to their commitment to a quixotic political movement to the way that they come to respect each other’s alternative versions of courage. In the pursuit of their respective lost causes, Aleksandr and Irina encounter the most morally resonant demands of their lives. They also find a rare connection in each other. Irina’s challenge is Aleksandr’s challenge in microcosm, after all—the dimensions may be different, but the questions are the same.

Reading Group Questions for Discussion:

1. Are Irina’s actions ultimately courageous or cowardly? Do you see her ending as happy?

2. In some ways, Irina’s and Aleksandr’s situations are similar—and in many ways, they are very different. What do you think brings Aleksandr and Irina together as friends? What do you think they learn from each other?

3. The character of Misha challenges Aleksandr’s vision of Russia’s democratic future. Is there any merit to his argument about the pragmatism of slower change? How do recent events in the Arab world speak to this argument?

4. Irina treasures her intellect, and fears that she will not be herself anymore once she begins to lose it. What do you think makes you “you”? Do you feel there’s some essential quality that makes you who you are—and that, if you lost it, you wouldn’t be the same person?

5. Why are Aleksandr’s sections written in third person, while Irina’s sections are written in first? How does this decision inform your reaction to the book? Did you find you connected more with either Irina or Aleksandr?

6. What do you think would have become of Ivan if he’d lived?

7. Irina can often be sardonic and fatalistic. Are there any examples of her behaving in ways that subvert this cynical pose?

8. Beyond Aleksandr’s political career and Irina’s disease, do you see other lost causes in the book? Have you been faced with a lost cause in your own life, and how did you react to it?

9. How does chess work as a metaphor in the book? Is the structure of the game itself mirrored in the structure of the book?

10. Do you think that Aleksandr’s chess brilliance ultimately made him a better or worse person?

11. What role does Irina play in the reunion between Elizabeta and Aleksandr? Do you that they might have reconnected if Irina had never come to Russia?

12. After Misha’s letter to the editor is published, Boris decides to abandon Aleksandr’s campaign, while Viktor decides to go with Irina to Perm. If you were Boris or Viktor, what decision do you think you would have made?

Dubois_A Partial History of Lost Causes

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