Susie Kelly and her husband Terry cycle through the countryside of France in The Valley of Heaven and Hell: Cycling in the Shadow of Marie Antoinette. She is riding an electric bike while Terry pedals a regular one as they travel 500 miles in 17 days. Susie takes us on the ride with them as she sprinkles in tidbits of French history, battles, and new green spaces that now cover former tragedies.
Initially, we see them start out in Versailles and cycle to Paris and stay at a hotel close to the Gare du Nord (train station). Then, they set off and cycle halfway across France. She has studied the life of Marie Antoinette, so she consciously traces the steps of the lives of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Through Susie Kelly’s descriptions, we can see her as a young Austrian child-bride used as a political pawn by her stern mother. Young Louis had a hard time accepting his married state but over time, they learn to love each other, mourn their lost children and nurture the remaining two children. The oldest daughter, Marie-Therese survives the Reign of Terror and tells the tale of what happened to her family,
As Susie and Terry cycle through the various French towns, she humorously gives descriptions of the hotels, eateries, and the characters that they encounter along the way. There are several “laugh out loud” moments and she is even able laugh at herself when she thought she could not continue the feat. Once, she overhears an absurd conversation with a child who continually asks his parents why about six times. Amazingly, he received six full explanations and Susie just shook her head in the other room.
They follow the plight of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from the prison at the Tuileries all way to the guillotine where Louis is beheaded long before Marie Antoinette. Her wait time continues as well as her suffering until her final moment finally comes. Again, Susie tells the tale with such lightness as she goes back and forth from their time in the late 1700’s to the present. She allows her readers to enjoy the beauty of the French towns, cathedrals and other pristine moments and takes us back to a more in-depth tour around into Paris. I am so happy that Val Poore recommended this book!
September 24, 2022