12.18–The Lady of the Rivers

I am such a huge fan of Philippa Gregory. I just think she is the bee’s knees.  The Lady of the Rivers is the third book in The Cousins’ War series, which follows the War of the Roses. This novel is the prequel to The White Queen–the first of the series.

Jacquetta is a descendant of Melusina, a river goddess, and therefore possesses special gifts–namely the second sight.  An early experience with Joan of Arc and her untimely demise gives Jacquetta a life-long fear of using these gifts, though she is occasionally ordered by her sovereign to do so.  Her marriage to the Duke of Bedford and her early widowhood yield her great privilege throughout her life, but also put her in great danger as England’s political cauldron boils over into chaos.  Standing by her side through all of these troubles is her second husband Richard Woodville, who she married for love, and her innumerable children.

Philippa Gregory does extensive research on all of her novels and this one is no exception.  Jacquetta was a real woman whose life occurred right at the beginning of the War of the Roses. Gregory became fascinated by this relatively overlooked woman and expounded on her story.  As ever, I am astounded by Gregory and her capacity for creating beautiful stories out of minor characters from history.  Jacquetta is an easy heroine to love.  She does all she can to protect her husband and children during this dangerous period in English history.  She is a close friend and confidant of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI.  Henry comes to the throne as a boy and never quite becomes a man. He is always naive, and Margaret is no help in that vein.  Jacquetta and Richard attempt to herd them in the right direction, but the monarchs’ petty quarrels with the Duke of York evolve into all out war within their lifetime.  Jacquetta, thrust very close to the throne by circumstance and some family meddling is caught in a vise from which she cannot escape.  Her instinct for self-preservation and diplomacy make her one of the most admirable women in the court of Gregory’s creation.  She is gentle and loving to her husband and children, and sweet to a fault with the queen.  The fact that she’s descended from a goddess and possesses supernatural powers is just a bonus.

The love between Richard and Jacquetta had me burning with envy throughout the entire novel.  As with Gregory’s other books, The Lady of the Rivers spans a very long period of time–from Jacquetta’s childhood to her twilight years.  Richard loves Jacquetta from the moment he sees her as his lord the Duke’s new bride until his death decades later. Though they spend much of their life apart, their passion never fades and neither of them strays from the other.  Each time they are separated, Jacquetta is frantic for his safety, and they fall into each others’ arms like young lovers on his return, even after she has borne him 14 children (ouch!).  In a genre in which it seems like everyone sleeps with everyone (at least according to our favorite juicy historical fiction) it is really refreshing to read about a couple that is still happily devoted to one another.

Gregory’s novels can sometimes be a bit repetitive, especially in this time period.  She does a lot of jumping forward in time, and skims over events that she deems less important to her stories.  During this war, the power switches sides a lot, and everyone accuses everyone else of treason.  Though a lot of people cry foul on each other and it can seem rather trivial and petty, Gregory does a fine job of reminding the reader that this situation is constantly life-and-death for Jacquetta and her family.  It adds tension to the story and keeps the reader engaged despite the repetition.

This is by far one of my favorite Philippa Gregory novels.  Though I try not to read books in a series right next to each other, I may have to go pick up The Kingmaker’s Daughter, just because this novel left me craving more of her writing style.  Definitely read it!

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12.15–The Red Tent

Anita Diamant has done every single thing right with this novel. It is one of the most stunning pieces of literature I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In a primarily patriarchal culture, the red tent is a women’s haven where men are not permitted, and the culture within is absolutely beautiful.  The narrator, Dinah, is the only daughter of Jacob (of biblical fame), borne to him by his wife Leah. She is looking back at her life, from her very first memories to the nightfall of her existence, and it is a life full of both joy and sorrow.

Jacob has four wives, and Dinah regards them all as mothers. She is raised in a gaggle of children, always surrounded by playmates and confidantes.  Her best friend and closest sibling is Joseph, though they at some point become sadly estranged. As she and her brothers grow, they all drift slightly apart and fissures appear within the family group. Dinah is also the character in the Bible who is “raped” by the prince of a city, for whom her brothers later take revenge by killing every male resident of the city.  In the novel, however, Diamant portrays this as a love story, with Dinah visiting the city with her mother as an apprentice midwife, meeting the prince, and falling deeply in love with him. They have a whirlwind romance and a clandestine wedding without her parents permission, and they pay a heavy price for it.  Despite the profoundly heartbreaking tragedy of her short marriage, Dinah manages to move on and live a life of productivity, joy, and even enlightenment to a certain degree.

One interesting thing about the novel is that one would expect it to be steeped in Jewish culture and faith, but that is not the case.  Jacob and his sons after him do worship the god of his fathers. The women, however, around whom the novel circles, are of a strange pagan faith–a cult that worships the power of women and of the earth and the moon.  There is very little interference from the men on this topic. I suppose women were not considered important enough at this time to be converted.  This faith is what unites the women, who must come together in the red tent for a week out of every month, conducting rituals and celebrations, performing births together, singing songs and feasting. Each woman is regarded as a goddess in her own right, and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a distance and cold deity. Truly, these women exist in a world apart.

The plot is excellent.  Even in moderately uneventful parts Diamant manages to create enough “action” to keep the reader interested. The novel, as I said, is stunning. It is a beautiful piece commemorating the special culture that exists among women.  In a time when women were thought to have very little power, the bond between these women and the knowledge they possess in secret is inspiring. The men in the story are portrayed as dupes, albeit powerful ones. Dinah herself is a character worthy of awe. Even in her youth she is very wise, and though she is a bit impetuous and emotional, she is for the most part gentle in spirit, in word, and in deed.  She is a lovely narrator, never losing the readers interest for a moment. Her inner thoughts are profound and intriguing, and her words and actions are at times quite amusing.  Diamant’s construction of the entire novel is masterful, her grasp of the English language is that of a fine artist. If there is anything wrong with this book, I missed it. I definitely recommend it to female readers, for its beauty and its uniqueness of subject.

Week 10, Part 2–Revolution

All I can say is wow. Wow wow wow.  Jennifer Donnelly’s book Revolution is absolutely fantastic.  This fine work of young adult fiction is an example of the quality of writing to which all YA novelists should aspire.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=Bibliograph07-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=0385737637&fc1=F3EDED&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=040404&f=ifrIt is a story within a story. Story the first: Andi is a troubled high school senior at a prestigious prep school in Brooklyn, one where every student is told they are a genius and are therefore held to rigorously high standards.  Her brother dead, her father errant, and her mother mentally unstable, Andi feels that there is nothing left to live for, and is apathetic about everything in her life, save one thing: music.  When her father returns after hearing news of how bad life is for Andi and her mother, he takes her away to Paris, where he is doing work with a friend and where he hopes he can keep an eye on his tormented daughter.  In Paris, Andi finds a diary hidden away in a secret compartment in an ancient guitar case.  The diary is that of Alex, a young girl who lived during the French Revolution.  Here begins story the second.

Alex is a player, her family a troupe of actors who struggles to find work in the period of political unrest that is France in the late eighteenth century.  When her antics make the young, sad prince Louise-Charles, son of King Louise and Marie Antoinette, laugh, the royal couple takes her on to entertain their children.  As the turmoil grows more heated, Alex comes to love Louise-Charles, and is as protective and jealous of him as if she were his true mother.  When the royal family comes to danger and Louise-Charles is imprisoned, Alex takes on the identity of The Green Man, and sets off brilliant displays of fireworks to remind the ten-year-old prince that he is not alone.

Andi becomes increasingly immersed in Alex’s story, until she somehow actually enters Alex’s world of eighteenth century France.  Whether this time-warp is reality or a drug-induced hallucination, the reader is never given to know.

Ok, so it’s a long book and there’s a lot going on, hence the long synopsis.  But, though the plot is creative and fascinating, that’s not what I really loved about this book.  There are several things that really set Donnelly’s writing apart for me.  The first is the intense emotion in the book.  One thing about young adult writing is how raw it is.  Often times an writer for adults seems more concerned with making creative, deep, or unique analogies and similes, and in the process fail to actually convey the emotion.  Donnelly does not make this mistake.  The agony felt by both Andi and Alex is deep and powerful, as is the love they feel for those dear to them.  Also, I love the web of interconnectedness that everything in this book belongs to.  No detail is too insignificant to be included in the grand picture.  Donnelly even includes something analogous to this in the book–Andi’s senior thesis.  Her thesis is something she refers to as musical DNA, which basically means that certain musical themes can act as a gene in human DNA does–it gets passed down from one composer/musician to another, influencing the generations to come. Andi focuses on one composer (who lived during the time of the French Revolution–interconnectedness) who started using a certain chord in his work that was previously considered taboo.  Due to his influence, this chord began to appear more and more frequently in quite unexpected places, being passed down from generation to generation, until it reached the present day (in the form of a little band called Radiohead, among others).  It’s really cool reading all this research, knowing that everything is connected and that things will eventually resurface in unexpected places.  And this “musical DNA” represents perfectly what happens in the novel, between all the characters and the little details–everything is either a parallel or has some influence on another part of the story. Brilliant!

Ok, enough raving.  I highly recommend this book.  It’s an absorbing read, and though it’s pretty long for a YA novel, once you’re immersed in it you hardly realize how long it is.  Andi and Alex are both beautifully written characters that I feel you will enjoy reading about, and possibly identify with.