While I’m starting to enjoy reading Gregory’s books because they’re decently entertaining for the most part, I do wish Gregory would quit insisting (implicitly, of course) that she’s some academic historian. But I’m not about to get my panties in a bunch and go right there, since I’m someone who readily subscribes to the thought, or truism, that historical novels are the paragon of that animal called speculative fiction. No doubt this novel involved demanding scholarly research, but any hints of being scholarly are absent. While this book is leaps and bounds better than The Red Queen – its sequel, which I read first – it’s far from outstanding. And it’s mainly not because of what I’m guessing are its historical inconsistencies or lack of “scholarliness.”
The White Queen covers a time period of about 20 years (give or take a few) starting from when Edward and Elizabeth Woodville meet up until it’s almost time for the Bosworth Field. It’s a tumultuous period in English history that any novelist would struggle to incorporate all the events, surmise, and fill in the missing details with imagination. Gregory, in particular, at times needs to resort to writing in the third person to comment rather than dramatize Elizabeth’s narrative, at others she skips years. The early section in particular blends into one long war montage that becomes confusing. And it doesn’t help that so many key players have the same name (George, Richard, Margaret), despite of the map and detailed family tree ravishingly illustrated up front in the book.
I can’t say I’ve read a whole lot of historical fiction – I’ve only read a handful, the bulk of which I consider to be the “popular” ones, which is to say they are not the best exemplars of the category out there – but it seems I have a love-hate relationship with the genre. The historical novels I’ve read are indeed like tapestries: detailed, finely wrought and colorful, but essentially static. Things happen to these needlework queens and kings, courtiers and common folk, but most of the time they do not make things happen. They remain lifeless figures. And the languorous tendency in which their lives are narrated – and yes, there are parts of their historical lives that you sometimes just can’t be bothered to be interested in – naturally ought to put you to sleep.
This one, however, kept me up. This is my first Philippa Gregory, though I have previously seen the film adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl. And, what can I say: this novel almost resembles a film, attempting to be as “accurate” as any documentary but without being detached or dispassionate. A rich, consistently engrossing narrative voice is her preeminent tool, and in The Red Queen I felt that the protagonist was right in the room with me, whispering confidences – so close that I could see the perspiration on her upper lip, the crucifix around her neck, the gold embroidery on her gown.
Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus feels so much similar to Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and Vanora Bennett’s Portrait of an Unknown Woman, books I’ve read in the past years. All three are works of historical fiction that have the ability to convince, albeit fleetingly, that they must be true.
However, The Birth of Venus isn’t based on the Botticelli masterpiece that still resides in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It’s based on the metaphorical “birth” – and transformation – of a woman whose single-mindedness is constantly thwarted by actions which force her to conform to 15th century Florentine society.
I’m not big on novels associated with the feminist school of thought that suggests forbidden romance, in all of its forms, brings about liberation or freedom. Yet I was blindsided by this one – well, a little.
One of Dunant’s foremost accomplishments with this novel – and there are few – is her establishing of familiar plot threads about her protagonist, Alessandra. Hers is a page-turning, rebellious story, almost melodramatic, but it’s one that follows a rather straightforward course steered by predictable and one-dimensional characters. You start to feel smug because you think you’ve figured out how everything’s going to end. But just when you think you’re heading toward a familiar train wreck, Dunant puts you through many erratic (but mostly plausible) 90-degree plot turns that are, well, typical, but still quite intriguing.