Tag Archives: Robin Maxwell

TO DIE FOR: A NOVEL OF ANNE BOLEYN by Sandra Byrd

To_Die_For

The trouble for the writer, of writing yet another book about Anne Boleyn, is that it is yet another book about Anne Boleyn and consequently the bar is set formidably high for success. I am sure Ms. Byrd believed she had hit upon the winning formula when she plucked Meg Wyatt from obscurity to become the narrator of her novel TO DIE FOR: A NOVEL OF ANNE BOLEYN.  However, I don’t think she succeeded. In what follows, I am going to articulate what I think the problems were.

The main problem for me is that the narrator Meg Wyatt is not an interesting person. Unlike Mary Boleyn, the narrator of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, Meg Wyatt hasn’t been the mistress of both the King of France and the King of England. Not only doesn’t she have any knowledge of Anne’s life at the courts of Burgundy and France, she has no way of knowing much about Henry VIII, the man, behind the glittering facade. Philippa Gregory’s choice of Mary Boleyn as the narrator for her novel was brilliant, precisely because she is the perfect foil for Anne, leading such a similar life, but being such a different person.

The consequence of all this is that the beginning of the novel, which portrays the friendship between Meg and Anne, is far too slow. The engine of the novel didn’t start for me until page 67, when Anne embarks on her relationship with Henry VIII.

Another big problem is that Ms. Byrd has nothing fresh to say about Anne Boleyn. What made Robin Maxwell’s MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN so compelling, is that she unearthed some new evidence that suggested that Anne Boleyn was much younger than had previously been thought (born in 1507, as opposed to 1501), and that she was a very young child (six years old) when she was sent to the court of Duchess Margaret of Burgundy in 1513. Subsequently she went to the court of the King of France around the time that he married Henry VIII’s sister Mary Tudor in 1514, and then she stayed on in France until 1522, not coming back to England to be presented at the court of Henry VIII until she was 15 years old.

Now, I am not an expert on Anne Boleyn, so I don’t know if she was born in 1501 and spent her youth in England as Sandra Byrd would have it, or was born in 1507 and spent her youth on the continent as Robin Maxwell says. However, I have to say that I found Ms. Maxwell’s novel far more interesting, because it provided a fresh new take on Anne Boleyn’s life that explained so many things.

Take the question of age. It is not known when Anne Boleyn was born, but I think it more likely that she was born in 1507 rather than in 1501. After all, why would a King of England, desperate for a son and heir, move heaven and earth for a woman of 24 or 25, when she would be considered on the shelf by the standards of the day? Doesn’t it seem more likely that he’d turn the world upside down for an 18 or 19-year-old, who would have her best child-bearing years in front of her?

Then there is the question of where Anne Boleyn actually was before she caught King Henry’s eye. Again, I have to say that I find it much more plausible that she’d been brought up on the continent, and blew into Henry’s court as an exotic breath of fresh air from France, rather than a young woman who’d been reared in England, and would be just another English beauty.

The last problem I’m going to talk about is the most puzzling one. This is not the first time I’ve wondered why Simon & Schuster doesn’t provide better editorial help for its authors. Why does it allow such obvious anachronisms to stand? Why does it allow Ms. Byrd to get away with stating that Anne’s father was visiting Belgium, when in Anne’s day, Belgium didn’t exist and was referred to either as Flanders or Burgundy (depending on exactly where you were)?  Why does Simon & Schuster allow this novel to open with a minor character stitching muslin? Surely muslin wasn’t known until the 17th century at the earliest, when the British started connecting with people from the Indian subcontinent. Why on earth do we have Meg Wyatt remarking that Anne habitually wore cotton stockings, when cotton wasn’t common until North America became established as a British colony in the 17th century?

Am I missing something? If so, I wish that Ms. Byrd had addressed the new research she’d unearthed that would prove me wrong, when she wrote her Author’s Note.

I see, from glancing at other Amazon reviews, that many readers enjoyed this novel, and I’m glad they did. I’m sorry that it didn’t work for me. Two stars.

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O JULIET by Robin Maxwell

You’ve heard of ROMEO & JULIET, so you don’t feel like reading an historical novel about them. But you would be wrong. For Robin Maxwell’s O JULIET performs the remarkable feat of taking a well-worn story and making it fresh and new.

Set in 1444, when Lucrezia Tornabuoni marries Piero dei Medici (an event that actually happened), the story of the star-crossed lovers is woven in with this historical event. Eighteen-year-old Juliet Capelletti is best friends with eighteen-year-old  Lucrezia Tornabuoni. But whereas Lucrezia is fond of her 25-year-old fiance, Juliet is disgusted by her fiance, Jacopo Strozzi, who is physically unappealing, stiff and clearly in it for the money.

Sadly, Juliet goes to the ball to celebrate Lucrezia’s betrothal, knowing it will be the last time she will partake in the Virgin’s dance (for she is soon to marry the revolting Strozzi), when her wrists are grasped by a masked figure. In the garden of the Bardi Palace, she discovers an attractive young man who loves Dante’s poetry as much as she does. They cannot stop talking. But before their encounter ends, Juliet learns that Romeo Monticecco is the son of her father’s worst enemy.

But love wins out, for a time, and Romeo is able to reconcile the two families. Is it possible that Romeo and Juliet can live happily ever after?

To find out, you’ll have to read this novel.

I have praised this novel to the skies, because I think it deserves it, both for its lively characters and well-developed plot line. But there is one problem I feel I must mention, because it pulled me out of my fictive dream. There are too many TELLs in the text. What do I mean by that? I mean narrative where the author tells the reader what is going on, rather than allowing her to discover it for herself. Let me provide two examples from many in the text.

Example No. 1:

“Do you not fear God’s punishment?”

“What worse punishment can he have in store any greater than this?”

Lucrezia’s face was full of anger. I needed to make her understand.

The last sentence is a TELL. I would rewrite it as:

Lucrezia was silent. Her jaw clenched and a vein throbbed in her temple. How could I make her understand?

Example No. 2:

I heard voices echoing in the hall outside the salon door. My father’s was clearly recognizable, as was Jacopo’s. I strained to hear Romeo’s but was unrewarded. Trying to remain calm, I asked permission to go and relieve myself.

This excerpt is replete with TELLs. I would rewrite the excerpt as follows:

The sound of voices echoing in the hall outside the salon door struck my ear. My father’s soft baritone intermingled with Jacopo’s nasal whine. But where was Romeo’s mellifluous bass? I folded my shaking hands, lowered my lashes and took breath. “May I be excused?” I said to the Contessina. “I need to visit the commode.”

I don’t know how these mistakes crept in. I noticed them, because i was recently called out by a prospective agent for making the same mistakes. He told me that “Like a beginning writer, I had a tendency to overwrite.” And then pointed to mistakes of this nature in my manuscript.

Ms Maxwell is such a talented writer. But all writers need editors to help them perfect the text. It is a shame that the editors at Penguin’s New American Library imprint did not do that.

–Cynthia Haggard writes historical novels.  She has two completed manuscripts that will be published in the coming year. THWARTED QUEEN  is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.FAMILY SPLINTERS is  a novel about identity, forbidden love and family secrets. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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Book Review: SIGNORA DA VINCI by Robin Maxwell

SIGNORA DA VINCI is the story of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother Caterina. Hardly anything is known about her, only that her name was Caterina and that Leonardo was taken from her arms shortly after he was born.

Out of that lack of evidence, Robin Maxwell has spun a remarkable tale that vividly portrays life in northern Italy during the Renaissance. But the novel is uneven. It begins very well, with Caterina as the young daughter of an apothecary, who falls in love with a young nobleman (Piero da Vinci), bears his illegitimate child, and then has that child snatched from her.  All of that was beautifully rendered.

The book lost me when we got to Florence and Caterina dresses as a man in order to be able to save her son, has an affair with Lorenzo Il Magnifico, and gets involved in Italian politics and heresy.  There were many reasons for this:

  1. The second part of the novel deteriorated into a data dump of Florentine politics, with not enough attention paid to character and motivation.
  2. I never quite got why Caterina needed to dress as a man to save her son.  After all, he was 16 nearly 17 when she showed up in Florence as an apothecary named ‘Cato’. In that day and age, he would have been considered an adult. And what 17 year old wants his mother hanging around, especially one who is cross-dressing?
  3. The love-affair with Lorenzo seemed contrived. If any of you have looked at his portrait (he’s the guy with the broken nose), you get a strong sense that this is someone you don’t mess with. So his characterization as a gentle, sweet soul didn’t ring true to me.

I hated the ending where Caterina sails off into the sunset on a boat headed for ‘India”, (really America), because it just seemed so corny. I would have preferred something more down-to-earth.

However, the ending shouldn’t stop you from trying this book. It is vivid, it is beautifully rendered (at least in the beginning), and if you like reading about Italian politics circa 1490, and don’t mind suspending disbelief, this is the book for you.

–Cynthia Haggard writes novels.  She is currently seeking representation for ONE SEED SOWN, TWO MURDERS REAPED, the Richard III story told from the point of view of his mother. For more on her creative writing, go to spunstories. (c) 2011. All rights reserved.

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