20 March 2009

The Mistress of the Monarchy and The Well and the Mine

I finished another two books this week. Score one for me for actually finishing some books before starting new ones.

The Mistress of the Monarchy is a bit of a misnomer because it sounds a bit like Katherine Swynford was the King's mistress rather than John of Gaunt's mistress/third wife (Guant was very influential but never King of England); the "mistress" portion actually refers to Katherine's position as step-mother to Henry IV (House of Lancaster) and mother to the Beauforts and Swynfords through whom the Houses of York, Tudor, and Stuart are descended. Kind of amazing when you think about it; at one point nearly every royal family in Europe could trace their lineage to one of Katherine's children. Katherine also occupies a neat place in English history because she was granted autonomy over her dower lands, making her a very rich woman in her own right. Weir's books are so interesting because she gives not only the biography at hand but also biographies of the surrounding players as well as the history of the time-period; often she has to work out the movements of the subject by elimination so we learn about everyone else as she goes. A good example is when each of her children by John of Gaunt were born; there weren't any birth announcements but Gaunt gave her very lavish presents or grants at nearly the same times that the children were born and this allows Weir to give more exact dates for Katherine's confinements.

The Well and the Mine is truly deserving of the B&N Discover Award for Fiction. Haunting. Phillips has each member of the family rotate through as narrator, not in any regular pattern but anytime the story would be served by a shift in perspective. In this way Phillips never has to stop the novel to describe the setting and I think this is wonderful. She paints 1930s Alabama wonderfully, pulling no punches, but never lets the story bog down in word-painting. The novel feels like an portrait of the time period and exhibits people in all their various shadings and beliefs, including the warts. The feeling of the novel is most definitely not nostalgic but authentic. Although the central plot of the novel is to determine who threw a baby down the family well the process of telling that story is what makes this a treat to read.

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