Book Review: The Lady of The Rivers by Philippa Gregory

9542439Title: The Lady of The Rivers
Author: Philippa Gregory
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: September 15th 2011
Rating: 2,5 stars
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Review copy provided through GalleyGrab.

Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of nineteen she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her house-hold for love, and then carved out a life for herself as Queen Margaret of Anjou’s close friend and a Lancaster supporter – until the day that her daughter Elizabeth Woodville fell in love and married the rival king Edward IV. Of all the little-known but important women of the period, her dramatic story is the most neglected. With her links to Melusina, and to the founder of the house of Luxembourg, together with her reputation for making magic, she is the most haunting of heroines.

Let me start by saying that, when it comes to Philippa Gregory and her works, I’m probably biased. I love her. I love her works. I’m obsessed with her books; an obsession that dates back to when I first read The Other Boleyn Girl, the novel that made her famous. I have always been a great fan of Anne Boleyn and her story has intrigued me from the time I first read it, but up to date the most enthralling and intriguing version of that story remains the retelling by Philippa Gregory in The Other Boleyn Girl. Gregory is to the Tudors what Marion Bradley is to Morgan Le Fay and Avalon. She manages to bring an authenticity and originality to characters we have seen over a thousand times, she spins the angle and gives us a brand new view over these people, their passions, their loves, their fears. And she does so again in The Lady of The Rivers. The problem however is that much of these method has lost its grandeur after a couple of books and that it got old fairly quickly. On top of that, the underlying message that Philippa Gregory seems to repeat during this book is mostly to warn us about women craving too much power. In a world where women are virtually all-empowered, this message seems both outdated, old-fashioned and strange. The references to this message annoyed me so much through-out this entire book that I sometimes felt like throwing it across the room.

The Lady of The Rivers starts with a meeting between our main character, Jacquetta and the infamous Joan of Arc. While we would suspect Joan to be portrayed as the mixture between a witch and a hero as she is in most books, Gregory takes the rather blunt approach to portray her as a simple-minded woman with a devotion that knows no boundaries and a solid belief in a happy ending for everyone. Joan is not a multi-dimensional character at all and it seems as though her sole purpose in this book and the few pages she has is to warn us all about what happens to women who yearn for too much power. They end up burned at a stake. Now if that’s not something to look forward to, then I don’t know what is.

But, it gets even better. For those of you who know next to nothing about history and think The War of the Roses is just another video game, the events that unfold in this book talk about an upcoming war between the two most powerful families in England in the 1460s, The Cousin’s War between the house of York and the house of Lancaster. The woman who this book is about, Jacquetta belongs to the house of Lancaster. As a trusted ally of the Lancaster Queen, Margaret Beaufort – who played the main role in The Red Queen, a previous book of Philippa Gregory – Jacquetta and her husband Richard Woodville fight alongside Lancaster to hold the power as ruling house. However, they switch sides as the final battle that decided the War of the Roses claims York victorious. While Margaret Beaufort is forced to flee, Jacquetta’s daughter Elizabeth meets with Edward of York. Elizabeth Woodville will later marry Edward and become Queen of England, with York as the new ruling house. She is also the protagonist in another previous book by Philippa Gregory, The White Queen. Quick recap: Jacquetta is besties with The Red Queen Margaret of Anjou and her own daughter later becomes The White Queen. In other words, Jacquetta is stuck right in the middle of the civil war that ripped England to shreds.

If this doesn’t make the most interesting premise you’ve ever heard about, then I don’t know what does. But I can make it more interesting if you want. Did I mention that Jacquetta possesses magical abilities? No, she isn’t some medieval Harry Potter but she can sometimes predict the future, courtesy of the goddess Melusina, who is the matriarch of her bloodline. Furthermore, the duchess occassionally practices alchemy and witchcraft with her first husband, the Duke of Bedford, until he perishes in an untimely death. Eventually Jacquetta marries Richard Woodville, a man much below her standing, but the love of her life. Unfortunately for us, this leaves Jacquetta’s love life as being of little interest. She spends a lot of time in the country, away from court and all the intrigues and warfare, and produces one baby after another up to the point that I wanted to go back in time and give her birthcontrol. Seriously. How many children can one have? I mean, it does take nine months to get pregnant and deliver a baby to this world. It seems like Jacquetta produces children every two or three months. Every time the story is halted because she finds it necessary to produce yet another one of her offspring, travel to the country, give birth, spend about a month’s time with the little precious annoyance and then eventually return to court where all the trouble’s at. If the main purpose of a heroine is to produce children, then Jacquetta definitely succeeds in that department. Birth control, where have you been all these centuries? You would have saved me having to read through fifty pages describing numerous child births.

Jacquetta is a one-dimensional cardboard figure, as is her first husband the Duke of Bedford and her second husband Richard Woodville. Unfortunately, it didn’t have to be this way. Historically seeing they each make an interesting and intriguing person enough that they wouldn’t have to be portrayed in such a boring and dull way. The Duke of Bedford for example was a man who made the best of everything in very difficult times and who often kept the peace when nobody else could. Saying that he married a woman at least ten years younger than him and lower in rank as well solely to use her premonition abilities is a bit one-sighted. Richard Woodville was a brilliant strategist and one of the most important players in the Cousin’s war yet much of his personality is left unshown and the bits and pieces that we do see focus mostly on family life. Jacquetta herself could be intriguing enough, throwing aside rank, fortune and name to marry a man with not even the title of Lord, an act of true love and looked down upon in those times. I would have liked to know how Jacquetta managed to deal with all that, but instead I get her producing one baby after another. The King is a childish teenager with no real capabilities. He probably can’t even decide what he wants for breakfast, let alone how to run a country.

The only character who showed potential of turning the entire story around for the better was Margaret of Anjou. From the moment she appeared she felt refreshing, new and inviting. However, Philippa Gregory quickly put an end to this fresh breeze through the story and quickly portrayed Margaret as a silly school girl in love with the Duke of Somerset, who couldn’t care less about the welfare of the Kingdom and only cared about her own set of friends. By the time Margaret and King Henry drag the country into a civil war that will leave it devastated, Jacquetta is reduced to a bystander character who can only shake her head at the events unfolding in front of her. That, and produce one baby after another. Maybe she’s hoping one of her babies will make everything right again? That it eventually happens to be so doesn’t take away the fact that this woman is really exaggerating the importance of having a handful of heirs. By the time I got halfway through the novel, Jacquetta was nothing more than a baby-producing carboard figure with as much personality as a tablecloth.

It’s sad to say that this novel had the potential to go above and beyond The Other Boleyn Girl, slap all other historical fiction novels in the face and claim its rule once and for all. I mean, this is probably the most intriguing, three-dimensional, layered setting in the history of England. Mentioning the Cousin’s War alone is enough to make shivers run down my spine as I think about the level of schemes that had to be made in order to win the war, the brilliant strategists that turned England into their battlefield and the ultimate price: the crown of the Kingdom. However, Philippa Gregory reduces the important players to cartoon figures and laughs in their face. It seems as if she has lost her magical touch to portray the protagonist and supportive cast as actual human beings with feelings, emotions and troubles. She no longer makes history come to life, but she makes fun of history. Urgh.

It’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy this book. Even if you cut away all characters mentioned, you’re still left with one heck of a story, but for none of that does Philippa Gregory deserve credit. It’s just history. Cousins turning against each other, intrigue of the highest level…Even sloppy characters, dialogue that makes you want to cry and the continuous baby production cannot destroy the magnificent story at the heart of this book. Gregory’s writing style is as always quite captivating, although in this book it does lack a certain flair present in her earlier works. The plot pace is fast, although I felt like throwing the book all across the room every time I read about Jacquetta’s pregnancies and her having to return to the countryside to give birth to yet another nuisance, becuase this slowed down the pace significantly and made me wonder what the heck was going on at the only place that really matters – court.

With more attention and love for the characters playing in this book, The Lady of The Rivers had every potential to be another bestseller. However, with the state the characters are in now – one-dimensional, boring, simple-minded – I fear that this book will never bring Gregory the success her earlier works did. The background story is intriguing enough, but the execution could have been better as well. I will not say that I’m dissapointed in this novel, because I’m not. I did read it in one setting, the narrative was enthralling enough to keep me from doing other stuff while reading, but I was content when I finished it. The underlying message of this book, that women should not trive for too much power, was unsettling and annoying as well, and immediately put me in a wrong mood. I will continue to read Gregory’s writing because one slightly bad book does not make a bad author, but my expectations have lowered significantly.

That said, in the goodreads reviews, first-time readers of Gregory’s work or people who have only previously read The Other Boleyn Girl seem to rate The Lady of The Rivers highly, whereas die-hard fans like myself give this book a lower score. Perhaps we’re getting used to too much, or we’re just expecting too much. If you’re new to Philippa Gregory’s work, or you’re a fan of historical fiction, you shouldn’t miss out on The Lady of The Rivers. It might not be Gregory’s best, but in the general scheme of things, it still ranks highly on the historical fiction scale. Some people love the magical element to this story with the premonition and all, but I wasn’t a big fan of it. Overall, an enjoyable way to pass the time, but it can’t be compared to The Other Boleyn Girl or The White Queen.

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