Tag Archives: Philippa Gregory

Less Romance, More History Please!

JulietBalconyOn Valentine’s Day I finished reading Anne Fortier’s novel “Juliet,” a story about a descendent of the real Juliet of Siena going back to Italy to find a long-lost treasure and break the famous curse–“a plague on both your houses”- for good measure.  The book was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “a Da Vinci Code for the smart modern woman.”  I would describe it more like a Dan Brown plot on steroids, mixed with a Sophie Kinsella-like silly romantic story with an even sillier main character, and a dash of Philippa Gregory historical fiction.  The author does a great job describing the scenes and setting of Italy: the ancient buildings, the food, and people.  Her strongest sections of the novel were the ones set in the 1340’s, telling the re-imagined tale of the original Romeo and Juliet.  Also, she shows her knowledge of the influence the story had on Shakespeare, how the story morphed and eventually travelled to England.  The weak part of the novel is, in my opinion, all of the main characters in the modern setting.  Juliet (or Giulietta in the Italian) is a twenty-five year old ingenue, still crippled by the relationship with her bad-girl twin sister and easily duped by everyone around her.  She is a nincompoop of the first order.  Her sister, the exact opposite, is a cartoon-like bad girl.  The main love interest, the modern-day Romeo, is a brooding lout who hardly inspires much more than the desire to give him a good slap.  The dialogue between the two lovers is painful, stagnant, and downright dull.  What kept me reading to the end despite all this was the resolution of the mystery–the finding of the treasure.  Reader beware.  To get to this point you have to endure ridiculous plot twists, numerous improbable secret identities,  easy solution of codes, clues that fall from the sky….well, you get the idea.  It would have been a much stronger work if Fortier had stuck to the original story set in Italy and the hunt for the tomb and treasure and totally left out the romance.  Julietcover

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How Much History, How Much Fiction?

poisonHistorical Fiction.  A genre that probably needs some defining.  What exactly constitutes a historical fiction novel?  Is it enough to set it in a real place and time, with the occasional walk-on character from real world events?  Where is the balance between the history and the fiction?  The historical fiction work is a novel after all, it is meant to entertain, sweep the reader away, elicit emotions, well, you know–otherwise it would be a history book.  What brings me to pose these questions is a work I just finished by Sara Poole called “Poison.”  It is a book in her series about the renaissance, which focuses a great deal on the Borgia family.  The gist of the story is this: the daughter of Rodrigo Borgia’s “poisoner,” –a man employed to do his bidding by poisoning enemies or taking measures to see that Borgia is not poisoned– is killed, but his daughter, Francesca, assumes his role.  As such, she vows to avenge her father and gets embroiled in a plot to kill the reigning pope, Innocent, and replace him with Borgia.  All this must be accomplished before Innocent can sign a writ, backed by Torquemada, expelling the Jews from Rome and all the lands under Christian rule.  Granted, the historical characters were real, Borgia was portrayed particularly well, and there may have been a precedent for such a situation involving the Jewish ghetto, but that is where the history ends.  This particular novel devotes much time to the romances of the main character.  Astoundingly, every young male from Borgia’s son, to the evil monk villain, to the Jewish resistance fighter are preternaturally handsome and manly, and this is not lost on Francesca.  She herself is no slouch, just check out her comely image on the cover.  Hmm, did renaissance women wear their hair down like that?  I think she appeals more to our modern sense of a heroine.  And I believe that is the fiction end of the bargain.  In order for books to sell, the publishers (and authors) want them to appeal to a wide audience– maybe scoop in some of the romance readers, maybe appeal to a women’s fiction crowd.  I find that although Poole has done her homework on the Borgia family, the facts seem ham-fisted into the story, more like a book report than a plot point, and some of the language is too modern.  On more than one occasion, our heroine repeats the phrase, “Make no mistake, ….” so that I could not but help imagining George Bush speaking.  There was also a case of using an expression from a later era, such as “take him down a peg.”  But all that aside, it seems to me on balance the fiction and exciting plot and romances of the story take a decided more important role than the history.  Poole could be described as a Philippa Gregory mixed with Janet Evanovich.  Oh, and if you like a nice, tidy ending…forget it.  This work was clearly left hanging in order to such the readers into a series.

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