In this rather expansive book, Phillipa Gregory recounts the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and mother of Queen Elizabeth I. Don’t let that faze you. The narrator of the book is Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and the king’s mistress. Its through her point of view, we get a rich glimpse of the power games at play in the 16th century English court. Almost like an inside scoop. The story of Anne Boleyn is very well known, so there is really no suspense, in terms of plot, because we all know how the story ends. Yet, Gregory manages to keep us on the edge of our seats. How did it happen? Who did it? The realpolitik of the court, the games to win the king’s favor, the spies, the wars, the diplomacy and the lack thereof and most of all the ambition spin the characters – Mary and Ann Boleyn, their brother George, the King and Queen Katherine, the courtiers, the bishops, the knights even the lowly chambermaids into a dizzying, enthralling tale.
What worked for me
The flow. The novel flows effortlessly. And is very well researched. Only if they had taught history like this in schools! The novel is also extensive in scope and while I winced at the 600+ pages before I started to read, I slowly realized that it couldn’t really be edited to something significantly smaller without sacrificing its pace. I liked the pace of the book. It starts with an execution (actually two) and ends with one. I fall for full-circle-themes like that.
From what seems a fairly routine and innocuous incident (well at least in the 16th century) of Mary Boleyn catching the King’s eye and becoming his mistress, the story unfurls the unbridled ambitions of the Boleyn family, who will literally play the field with their daughters, right under Queen Katherine’s nose. The queen’s quiet dignity and anguished struggle in response to the King’s whims and the Boleyn girls, her political acumen and astuteness, her defiance, all come alive with the character Gregory crafts. The characters are all multi-dimensional. Even the gentle, sweet Mary Boleyn has a dark side to her. And the King, who seems to get what he wants, all the time- well, he is the King after all- has a tragic side to him.
I discovered the etymology of “courtship” and “courting” while reading the book. I discovered the customs and traditions of day to day living in the 16th century England. What did people eat? How did they dress? How did women give birth? And how were they branded witches? I enjoyed the ride immensely and at the end of it was left feeling sorry for every character in the book and thanking my stars for having been born in the 20th century.
What did not work for me
Some language was too modern. Although Gregory, thankfully stays away from the 16th century English and writes her dialogues in faux-old English to set the tone, sometimes, the phrases seem too modern. What also did not work for me, were the gratuitous passages of intimate relations. Between Mary and the King, Anne and the King, Mary and her husband. Too much detail to the point it felt like reading a Harlequin romance novel.
Hot or Drop
Definitely Hot. I can’t really compare it to other historical fiction novels – the only other piece of historical fiction I have read is in Marathi called “Swami” and I read it almost 15 years ago. But I enjoyed this very intriguing book and I highly recommend it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008