Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner

Once upon a time, the idea of reading books about kings and queens from long ago seemed about the most dull prospect on the planet to me. For some reason, I was completely ignorant to the fact that their stories were the stuff of soap operas, political thrillers, and lives of the rich and famous combined. Then I read one, loved it, and proceeded to overdose on this kind of historical fiction. I quickly learned, however, that it takes a special kind of writer with a special gift to bring these stories to life. C.W. Gortner is one of those writers, and I had no hesitation in reading his newest release, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.

Here's where I mention I'm still pretty ignorant of the history of all these kings and queens. I don't know the history very well, and I enjoy learning more about it from books like this one. It just so happens that Catherine de Medici lived during intense religious conflict in France, and that elevated my interest in this narrative quite a bit.

Catherine de Medici was born in Italy but pledged to a prince of France at a young age. Her husband, Henri had little interest in her and thus begins the sort of compelling narrative of a woman trying to secure her future when a man will have nothing to do with her! She does however, bare him many children, and many of those children met with sad fates.

I don't want to give away too much, so I'll talk about some of the things I enjoyed. I enjoyed that this story took place in France, much of it in the Loire valley, so when specific castles were mentioned, I could actually visualize them, having been there. I could visualize Chenonceau and understand why it was such a prize and beloved by Catherine. I could visualize Amboise and Blois. Funny enough, even though I could imagine these places, it made me want to go back! I think this is the first of all these kinds of historical fiction books I've read that took place in France and my familiarity with France increased my appreciation of the book.

I also found the religious history fascinating. I have always been fascinated by the Huguenots, as I am by any period of religious persecution. I have to admit to feeling shocked over how Catholics and Protestants can wage war on each other when they are both variations of the same faith. A peace loving faith I might add. I think in reality you're hard pressed to demonstrate how "turn the other cheek" means kill everyone who refuses to convert to your understanding, but that's what you get when you mix political power with faith. The persecution was really ugly and the Huguenots were certainly not blameless, as they built an army themselves. The way this all unfolded was interesting, especially as Catherine was a Catholic, but admits she sees religion as a way of keeping things from being chaotic (oh really?) and doesn't seem to grasp the heart of faith, and what it means to true believers. Even so, she often fought for compromise and ways to prevent the persecution and killing.

I became completely engrossed in this book and in the life of Catherine. I was interested to read she was quite feared and rather hated in the author's notes at the end, when it really seemed as if she did want to establish peace. Even with her longing to establish peace, however, she was a woman who cherished her political power and influence and worked to exert it.

I also loved Gortner's The Last Queen and I hope I don't have to wait too long to find out about which fantastic life he will illuminate next.

Rating: 4.5/5
Things You Might Want to Know: Explicit sex, a tiny bit of profanity
Source of Book: Received from Publisher for review
Publisher: Ballantine Books (Random House)


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