Thursday, August 09, 2012

book review: lady of the rivers

I didn't have super high hopes for The Lady of the Rivers, even before I started reading it. I'd already read the first two books in Philippa Gregory's series about the War of the Roses and the women who were players at that time period and enjoyed them for the most part, but I was confused as to why the book seemed to be going backwards rather than forwards. The first book of the set had been about Elizabeth Woodville and I thought it was completely backwards to read about her mother as the third book. Plus, I just hadn't found Jacquetta to be that compelling a character in The White Queen so I had no expectations that I'd be particularly thrilled with her as the protagonist.

Even as I started reading the first chapters I had apprehensions. Some of the more minor plotlines touched a particular nerve that's just a little bit raw right now and I held the book at arms length, and put it down more often than I usually would have. Plus the whole "having a job" thing? That has taken up a lot of my old reading energy.

Boy was I wrong. It took awhile for the momentum to really pick up, and I didn't have any periods that I just couldn't put the book down but I enjoyed the read. It was interesting to see some of the immediate history to the other two books, and I found that having some insight into King Henry and Queen Margaret's reign and how things had begun to devolve into the situation to be enlightening.

The Lady of the Rivers isn't as quickly paced as some of Gregory's novels are, but it also covers a longer timespan. The book starts with Jacquetta as a teenager in France, living in the aftermath of Joan of Arc's defeat and her eventual execution; our heroine goes so far as to have something of a friendship with Joan of Arc. The story continues through Jacquetta's two marriages, showing her role as a lifelong devotee of the Lancaster cause and one of Margaret of Anjou's closest confidantes and ends with her husband and son, defeated, swearing fealty to the York cause and the lead up to her daughter Elizabeth Woodville falling in love with the York king, Edward. Given the timeframe and how many significant events and battles took place it does somewhat make sense to me that the book can't be quite as quickly paced.

There are stops and starts. Jacquetta's life was punctuated by the birth of over a dozen babies, long and heart-rendering separations from her husband and so many rises and falls of fortune that it wouldn't have been honest had the book moved too quickly. Life doesn't always move quickly, and sometimes waiting and longing can take the most space in our lives so it was only fair that Jacquetta's story had many waits and many moments of longing and missing her beloved husband.

While all of Gregory's stories examine the power of women, and how a woman could make a life for herself at a time when the world was absolutely dominated by men in a very pronounced way, I found Jacquetta's to be particularly interesting. The family legend of Melusina and powers to foretell the future passed through the female line add an extra degree of danger and excitement given how persecuted witches were at the time. Gregory's Jacquetta walks a delicate line, balancing acceptance and denial of her powers, at time running towards them and at times away all the while being acutely aware of the danger of not just witchcraft but of being a powerful woman in the world in general.

With the Cousin's War series in general, I'm finding I have to let go of my expectations a little bit. The characters and relationships being explored aren't necessarily history's stars, they are those who are near the centre of the story but not quite the star. These women are pushed around more than, say, Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I; they have to find more subtle and careful ways to wield their powers and they're more aware of the danger that power holds for them by virtue of being women.

Letting go of the desire to read about the star characters has made this book much more interesting. In fact I actually found that I could get more involved and interested in these characters because I knew less about them to begin with. I didn't have pre-conceived notions of who Jacquetta was and what was significant in her life which let me really get into Gregory's interpretation of the character.

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