There’s no rhyme or reason behind how I determine what to read next – I’ll explore or revisit classics, pepper in some fantasy/sci-fi, indulge guiltily in the occasional YA bestsellers…kind of schizo. At any given time I’ll have a deep reserve of titles to choose from at random, amassed through various bookstore or Amazon perusals. I picked up a used copy of The Other Boleyn Girl during a daytrip to Ojai in the fall; when we stumbled upon the amazing Bart’s Books and I knew I needed a token to commemorate the occasion. This book caught my eye, probably in memory of that (awful? It was pretty bad right?) Natalie Portman movie that I think I feel asleep to years ago. I’ve been drawn to a lot of historical fiction lately – it’s rewarding to feel like you might be learning a little without the sensation of facts and dates getting shoved down your throat.
The Other Boleyn Girl follows the story of – you guessed it – the infamous Anne Boleyn and her lesser-known sister Mary. It chronicles their lives from the early teens through to (spoiler alert? Hopefully not?) Anne’s inevitable downfall years later. Though it is told from Mary’s perspective, throughout the narrative you gain insight into the hopes, dreams, sacrifices, and tragedies of both Boleyn girls – who became two of Henry VIII’s most memorable mistresses. You watch them grow up, in and out of favor of king and court, thrust unwillingly forward by their scheming family – all the while cultivating that unfathomable amalgamation of loathing, admiration, rivalry, and loyalty known as a sister’s love.
I LOVED this book. One thing I noticed immediately was the major opportunity, due to the juicy subject matter, for the writing to be lazy, cheap, or repetitive (Yooo Outlander). Boleyn is none of these things. Philippa Gregory writes with a clear, straightforward voice that paints a vivid and rich portrayal of what life could have been like during the illustrious Tudor era. It’s an intriguing (/addictive) peek into the salacious politics and corruption of court and its various players.
Boleyn occurs during a time where a king’s (or at least this king’s) number one priority during his reign is to conceive a son. In this account, the importance of international policy or the prosperity of Henry’s subjects seems to pale in comparison to securing his legacy. By default, a woman’s main prerogative is to marry well and conceive many of these succession-clinching sons. Girl babies are generally looked upon as disappointments, and once grown (you know, at least twelve years old), the young woman’s main role is as a pawn in the power play of her family’s ambition. Throughout the course of the years, I found it both fascinating and sad – the lengths people would go to forward their family name, with no regard for the well-being of its individuals (Exhibit A).
The characters are dynamic and captivating. Mary is a sympathetic protagonist – though she’s an adulteress, she still manages to establish a purity of spirit and I felt sorry for how little choice she ultimately has in the course of her life. I also love the way that Henry is depicted. From what I can recall from high school European history (noooot much) I really only remember him as a philandering tyrant. I appreciate the light this story sheds on his utter humanness, and through his many vulnerabilities I was able to sympathize with certain aspects of his vanity. To compare the fearless golden beauty of his youth to the lingering sense of failure, the awareness of his own mortality, as he ages and weakens with no established heir…you gain insight into some of his more debatable decisions later in life. You can even ultimately feel compassion for Anne as well. Despicable as she was in so many ways, you’re also acutely aware that she was only ever the product of her grasping family’s design. You can sense the fearful madness to succeed, or the sheer desperation not to fail, that drove her to isolation and scorn. In the end, despite all her calculated ambition and the power that came of it – the power to overthrow the church and institute a change in the way the world would view religion and marriage FOREVER (that’s one powerful p*ssy…), she ended up alone. And headless. You’re an asshole if you don’t feel something for Anne by the end.
I can only imagine what a challenge it is to write a compelling story to which everyone already knows the end. Gregory paints the picture so masterfully that I found myself wanting to know every detail of every moment leading up to the inevitable fall, and then everything afterward. I won’t argue for its historical accuracy (like I said, it’s been a while) – but it sure made for a good read.