Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillipa Gregory: A review

I've only read one other book by Philippa Gregory. It was Wideacre and it was truly awful, so I approached the reading of this book hesitantly and with trepidation. But people who know my taste kept telling me that it was just my cup of tea so I steeled myself and gave it a try. The verdict? Not bad.

The story of the infamous Boleyn family is almost too well-known to require summarizing here. Over the last couple of years, I've read a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that were set in the Tudor era - books such as Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the Matthew Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, and The Lady in the Tower by Alison Weir - and that included the Boleyns as characters, but this book provides another slant, another viewpoint of the familiar story.

The other Boleyn girl is Mary, the younger of the two sisters. Her ambitious family marries her off at twelve to a promising young courtier. She becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine and, inevitably, catches the wandering eye of King Henry VIII. The Boleyns encourage the king's interest and constantly push Mary forward in hopes of gaining power and influence through her relationship with the king. And, very soon, there is indeed a relationship, a relationship quickly consummated. Over the next four years, she bears him two children, first a daughter whom she names Catherine as an homage to the queen and then a son named Henry.

Meanwhile, the older Boleyn daughter, Anne, has returned from her years of "education" in France and becomes a regular at court and soon eclipses the quieter Mary. The king lusts after her, but she will not yield to him. She holds out for marriage, but that, of course, would mean setting aside the queen and annulling the king's marriage, making his only legitimate child, the Princess Mary, a bastard. Just a minor detail as far as Anne is concerned!

The story is told from the perspective of Mary. In this telling, the three Boleyn children, Anne, Mary, and George, are close. There is an "Us against the world!" mentality. Mary's narrative portrays herself and George as relatively innocent victims of the family's cutthroat ambitions, while Anne is fully complicit. But in the end, even Mary begins to suspect the depth of corruption which has grown up in the circle presided over by her sister, now queen, Anne.

The first two-thirds of this book, I thought, were fascinating, and the story well-told. The last third descended somewhat into the realm of the Harlequin romance (Not that there is anything wrong with that!) as it concentrated on Mary's falling in love and marrying for love and ultimately her and her children's survival of the carnage which befell her family. Overall, though, it was an interesting telling of a story which has never lost its evergreen quality, even after 600 years.

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