I am at it again with the book reviews. My summer job doesn't start until next week, so I've had plenty of time to read. The latest book in my summer reading is The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory. I've been wanting to read this for a while and only picked this up at the library last week. Gregory has a whole host of historical fiction novels based on royalty, and I'm actually about to start The Constant Princess, a tale about Katherine of Aragon.
I digress. Besides being over 600 pages long, The Other Boleyn Girl is the tale of the Boleyn family's rise and fall in the court of King Henry VIII. It is told from Mary Boleyn's point of view, being that she is, indeed, the other, the often overlooked, Boleyn girl.
Here's what the website has to say about the novel:
Mary Boleyn catches the eye of Henry VIII when she comes to court as a girl of fourteen.
Dazzled by the golden prince, Mary’s joy is cut short when she discovers that she is a pawn in the dynastic plots of her family. When the capricious king’s interest wanes, Mary is ordered to pass on her knowledge of how to please him to her friend and rival: her sister Anne.
Anne soon becomes irresistable to Henry, and Mary can do nothing but watch her sister’s rise. Anne stops at nothing to achieve her own ambition. From now on, Mary will be no more than the other Boleyn girl.
But beyond the court is a man who dares to challenge the power of her family to offer Mary a life of freedom and passion. If only she has the courage to break away – before the Boleyn enemies turn on the Boleyn girls…
This is a story of a family entirely driven by determination and greed for power. The women do what they are told, bed who they are instructed to bed, and may not complain. The novel breathes life into historical figures we can only dream of, and therefore the dialogues that take place are, as the historical fiction genre suggests, purely fiction. However, Gregory uses the facts that we do know about the Boleyn family, and what little we know of Mary to create a world as it may have been in the 16th century.
Mary is a sweet girl, and very obedient, and Anne is introduced as a wily and clever girl who is rather cold towards her sister. The dynamic between them is really interesting to read, and it makes me question whether they really do love each other even as they are vying for the attention of their family and pushing the other aside for each one's own gain. We cannot say what the dynamic was in real life, but the one presented in this book is fitting in the context of all the betrayals and pushing forward of Boleyn girls into the king's bed that went on.
Gregory takes theories about the Boleyn siblings, Mary, Anne, and brother George, and weaves them into a story sweeping over a decade, always making sure they fall in line with the facts that create the backbone of the novel. Each chapter is a different season, and so you are led at a rather leisurely pace through the lives of the Boleyn family, the politics of Henry's court, and the eventual demise of Queen Katherine of Aragon in the English monarchy, and of Anne herself.
It took me about a week to read this novel, give or take a day, which is quite quick for me. It is not a fast paced book by any means, so you don't realize just how much information you're being fed as you turn the pages. A bonus to the novel's narration by Mary is that she is a self-confessed slow learner, and not quick to understand the goings-on at court. Therefore the reader is treated to dialogue in which other characters explain to Mary the significance of events. This way, in case you don't catch on right away, you will discover along with Mary.
Mary, as the central figure, seems to be the only Boleyn who truly believes in compassion and love by the end, and she learns to be happy to just live with the man she loves, away from court. I don't consider this a spoiler because it's fact. She learns that for her ambition can never be as important as love for her husband and children, and she survives because of it.
If you'd like to know what is fact and what is fiction, the back of some of the copies of the novel have an interview with Gregory herself and she answers a bit of that. However, for more in-depth information, go to her website here, where she explains how she chose which bits of theory to incorporate and how much is actually fact.
[Side note: Then there's the movie based on it, which I haven't seen, and probably takes advantage of the more raunchy side of the story. It stars Scarlet Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry.]
I highly recommend this to those of you interested in historical fiction, the lives of the royals, and those with a passion for history in general. It's great fun to get inside the head of a member of the gentry and to grow up with her for fifteen years within these 661 pages.