Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sister Queens by Sophie Perinot

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: June 23, 2012

Patient, perfect, and used to being first, Marguerite becomes Queen of France. But Louis IX is a religious zealot who denies himself the love and companionship his wife craves. Can she borrow enough of her sister's boldness to grasp her chance for happiness in a forbidden love? Passionate, strong-willed, and stubborn, Eleanor becomes Queen of England. Henry III is a good man, but not a good king. Can Eleanor stop competing with her sister and value what she has, or will she let it slip away?

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Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence
Did I like the book? Obviously, but I am not above admitting that much of my admiration stems from exposure to history of which I was not already familiar. A natural scholar, I spent much of my reading cross referencing people and events. Call it a weakness, but I give points to any author that can spark my curiosity in such a way. That being said I’m torn with how to approach rating and reviewing this piece. I love Perinot’s subject matter but I’m not sure I am sold on her writing.

The story itself makes for compelling literature, but that is the case with a lot of historic fiction. At some point a reader needs to weigh what the author brings to the table against what is provided them by the historic record. For much of the novel, Perinot gives life to two very different women but I feel she lost momentum in the latter third of the book. Somewhere along the way their voices grow faint, their characters less prominent, at times even fragmented against the political backdrop of their stories. Unfortunately this also killed off much of the pacing. Where I had been unable to put the book aside I soon found myself struggling to get through even a handful of pages.  

If I have a concrete complaint about the book it is in regards to Marguerite’s oldest child, Blanche. Perinot goes to a great deal of trouble to illustrate the importance of family in both Eleanor and Marguerite’s lives. For several chapters they agonize over their inability to provide their respective kingdoms with an heir. Once they do have children, we are privy to the joy each finds in her role as mother.  For this reason I find it odd that it is a paragraph in chapter nineteen that first references the early death of the French princess. The child passed away at age two or three in the year 1243, but Perinot’s narrative doesn’t mention the event until 1246 in a chapter told from Eleanor’s point of view while she struggles with her fear of losing Edward. Marguerite’s apparent lack of affection for her first born irks me. Louis and Jean Tristan are the favored of her brood but as a mother I find it utterly incomprehensible that one could lose a child and be indifferent. Needless to say I found the reference in chapter nineteen woefully inadequate, but my feelings on the matter changed dramatically in the latter portion of the novel when Marguerite claims she would lay down her life for her children. The declaration grated my nerves.  Why should the reader believe she is capable of such devotion when we have been denied even the merest hint of maternal affection or grief for the young princess? For me, the omission proved the undoing of Marguerite’s character and greatly affected my assessment of Perinot’s work.

All things considered I am comfortable awarding four stars to Perinot’s Sister Queens, but it is a generous rating. The freshness of her subject matter went a long way in capturing both my interest and imagination and while I believe Perinot is without doubt an author to watch, I also feel there is significant room for growth. 

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How typical of men to think that by their brotherly embrace they are the authors of history and fortune. Marguerite and I know better. ‘Tis sisters who shape the world plain and simple.
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