Tag Archives: historical fiction

Anita Shreve – "Fortune’s Rock"

9 Sep

GENRE: Historical fiction
PUBLISHED: Abacus Book; 2000 (different cover than the one used here)

The back blurb:
“It is the summer of 1899, and Olympia Biddeford and her parents have retired from the heat of Boston to the coastal resort of Fortune’s Rocks. When the celebrated essayist John Haskell is invited to stay, no one foresees the affair that is to follow. What begins as the briefest of silences becomes a relationship that is both passionate and destructive, six short weeks that will shape the rest of their lives …”

What a wonderful and beautifully written novel.

Fortune’s Rock is Olympia’s story. I didn’t see this novel as a love story more as a coming-of-age story. The love story alluded to on the back cover is the catalyst for the coming-of-age story and not the main concern. Olympia starts out as a young and privileged girl. Everything is possible for her and she’s self-centered. She doesn’t take into account how her behaviour might affect other people. This combination ends in catastrophe and influences or even changes a lot of lives. The rest of the novel shows how Olympia copes and recovers from this until she faces a situation that basically asks the same question which the situation at the start (the one which ended in a catastrophe) of the novel also asked: Is it right to do as I want without considering other people? I liked this coming-full-circle and, IMO, it fits my view that Fortune’s Rock is basically a coming-of-age story.

This also is visible in the way the other characters are portrayed in the novel. Compared to Olympia, their characterization suffers. The other characters seem to be hardly more than shadows, even her father and her lover. Again, it helped to keep the focus on Olympia and I didn’t mind.

Anita Shreve’s Fortune’s Rock is one of the rare novels which leave me afraid to pick up another novel after finishing because I was totally “wowed.”

Would I recommend this novel? Yes.

Would I read this novel again? Yes.

Grade: 5 / 5

David Lodge – “Author, Author”

15 Oct

GENRE: Historical Fiction / Biographical
PUBLISHED: Penguin Books, 2005

The back blurb:
“1880s London. For the novelist Henry James, a decade that started promisingly draws to its end in anxiety about the failure of his books to sell, and he resolves to seek fame and fortune as a playwright. After five years of frustrating endeavour, everything depends on his make-or-break play, ‘Guy Domville’, which at last reaches the stage on 5 January 1895.

I really liked this novel. I liked its themes and structure. I liked the writing. And I liked how Lodge used James’s way to write when he let him speak. To say something negative here, there are very few instances where the novel seemed to slow down a bit, but overall it kept me interested and I didn’t like to put it down.

There is a second paragraph on the back blurb which sums this novel up quite nicely:

“That dramatic first night is the pivot of David Lodge’s wide-ranging and compelling novel. Vividly depicting the build-up and sequel to what Henry James described as ‘the most horrible hours of my life’, and sensitively portraying his intimate relationships with the genial artist George Du Maurier and the American novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, Author, Author explores the tensions inherent in a writer’s life – artistic values versus commercial success, friendship versus rivalry, and the price both of fame and obscurity.”

All I can say is: after reading David Lodge’s Author, Author I had the feeling to “know” Henry James (in this way it reads almost like a biography – with all the insecurities connected with this genre); I read three stories by Henry James which were mentioned in this novel right after: The Real Deal, The Aspern Papers and The Beast in the Jungle.

That says something, doesn’t it?

Would I recommend this novel? Yes.

Would I read this novel again? Yes.

Grade: 4,5 / 5

Philippa Gregory – "The Virgin’s Lover"

22 Sep

GENRE: Historical Fiction
PUBLISHED: HarperCollins, 2005

From the back blurb:
“In the autumn of 1558, church bells across England ring out the news – Elizabeth is queen. One woman hears them with dread. Amy Dudley, wife of Sir Robert, knows that with Elizabeth on the throne he will return to the glamorous Tudor court. Amy’s hopes that the ambitions of the Dudley family had died when Robert’s father was beheaded are ended. The triumphant peal of bells summons her husband once more to power – and to a passionate young queen.
Elizabeth has inherited a bankrupt and rebellious country. Her advisor William Cecil warns that she will only survive if she marries a strong prince, but the only man Elizabeth desires is her childhood friend.
Robert is sure that he can reclaim his destiny at Elizabeth’s side. And as queen and courtier fall in love, Dudley begins to contemplate the impossible – setting aside his loving wife to marry the young Elizabeth …”

The book starts with Amy Robsart’s view of Elizabeth becoming queen of England, turns to some flashbacks about Amy’s and her husband Robert’s life, and then picks up again with Elizabeth becoming queen. This time from Elizabeth’s point of view, using the same sentence as the first one in the book: “All the bells in Hertfordshire, all the bells in England were ringing for Elizabeth, …” (p.29).

Gregory likes to repeat expressions, mirror expressions of one character by another, or pick up expressions from one situation in another situation. For example, there is a scene where Elizabeth wants the only open shutter closed so that even the moon can’t see what she’s doing with Robert in bed (p.312). Right after that, there is a change of scene to Amy in her bed and, after seeing the moon through the only open shutter, she thinks about Robert: “Perhaps it will wake him too, and make him think of me.” (p.312). This device serves to juxtapose and compare different scenes and point of views.

Sometimes, it serves to connect different scenes, and that’s important, because The Virgin’s Lover is a “all-over-the-place” novel. Gregory jumps in her narration from one scene to another (indicated by empty space and a little sign between the lines), and with that from one character to another. In the example above, the part about Amy is only two paragraphs long before the story moves on to a conversation between Robert and Mary Sidney, his sister (p.313). The novel lacks a center, or a “main character”, which keeps it all together. I had to read over 100 pages to get into the novel, and I think this is mostly because of this structure. The other thing is that you know what will happen and it is therefore hard to become invested in the characters.

So how to judge this novel?

Philippa Gregory writes about the purpose of her novel The Virgin’s Lover in the “Author’s Notes” of the book: “I suggest that…” (p. 483). The purpose is to present a convincing solution to the mystery of Amy Robsart’s death. She can’t change much of the events happening before Amy’s death (they are known), if she wants to write a historical novel. With the characters, she has a bit more leeway. It’s easier to improvise here, because to what extent the characterizations correspond to the real people is a question nobody can answer for sure, whereas you can’t change actual events.

So she shows Amy as a simple woman, very much in love with her husband. She wants nothing more than to live with him in a house in the country. Amy’s uneducated, naive and a devout Catholic. Robert on the other hand is ambitious, very ambitious. He wants to restore the family name and rise to glory. Elizabeth is portrayed as an insecure, undecided, frightened queen, rather weak and very much dependent upon Robert (and Cecil). But there is one thing Elizabeth is sure about: she wants to stay queen (and that is one character trait easily reconciled with the general knowledge about the “real” Elizabeth I). These three characters set in motion a love triangle that ends with the death of Amy Robsart. Gregory’s characterisation of these three characters makes her answer to the question about Amy’s death believable.

Judged purely as a work of fiction, with no regard to historical accuracy, Philippa Gregory’s novel The Virgin’s Lover succeeds. If you don’t have too much problems reading about an unusual characterized Elizabeth I*, it’s not a bad novel to read. I even think it was the (maybe) slightly off characterization of Elizabeth that made this novel interesting after a slow start for me, because it was the only thing I didn’t expect / know.

* I read in one account (yes, the novel/characterisation made me check my history books) that Elizabeth I didn’t like to go to war or make decisions, so in this regard Gregory’s characterisation seems to be true.

Would I recommend this novel? Not sure, depends on the person.

Would I read this novel again? No.

Grade: 3 / 5