by Jean Plaidy
Book One in the Catherine de' Medici trilogy
Catherine de' Medici is only fourteen years old when her great-uncle, the Pope of Rome, decides that she is to be married to the son of King Francis I . As Catherine travels to France to cement the alliance between Rome and the French king, she leaves her childhood sweetheart back in Florence. Although Catherine is initially nonplussed about Prince Henry, but as time passes her broken heart is glued together with a new, burning passion for her husband. Sadly, her love is not reciprocated, for Henry has long been in love with the Diane de Poitiers, a woman nearly twice Catherine's age. As the years roll by, Catherine's frustration over her husband's disinterest drives her to spy on him and Diane. She gains a reputation at court as a quiet little mouse with no particular intelligence, but behind the scenes Catherine works to punish her rival for Henry's affection and finally win the desire and devotion of her husband.
Jean Plaidy was a popular author in her day (this title was first published in 1952), and many of today's historical fiction writers – including Michelle Moran and C. W. Gortner – mention her as a strong influence on their own work. But reading Madame Serpent, the first in a trilogy about Catherine de' Medici, I was struck by how different her writing is from her modern counterparts. She spends a lot of time telling the reader about events at court, rather than showing it through the eyes of the characters. There's a...detachment to her writing, an almost clinical handling of the characters that holds them at arm's length. Thus, I never really feel the burning of Catherine de' Medici's desire for her husband, although I'm told she's being driven nearly mad over him. There is no intimacy.
I know that some people prefer this style of storytelling, because it is less likely to cross or contradict the historical record. In truth, sometimes I vastly prefer it to the overwrought, emotional soap opera romances that seem to be churned out by the dozens lately. But in this particular case, the distance between the reader and the character bothered me. Catherine de' Medici is a polarizing, controversial figure, so I want to understand her. I want to know how she makes her decisions and how she feels. She spends much of the book wearing a 'mask' and living a double life – dutiful, dull wife by day and spy and Machiavellian plotter by night. But she never really came to life, and never fully engaged my interest.
I know that there are many other books out there in which Catherine is either the star or a major player, so I'm hard-pressed to recommend this book when I'm nearly certain that there must be a more captivating and entertaining version of her life out there.
2 out of 5 stars
To read more about Madame Serpent, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.
Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: Little Princes by Conor Grennan
2010: Discussion Question: What book(s) are you eagerly waiting for?
2008: The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson