Saturday, April 26, 2014

Four Sisters, All Queens, by Sherry Jones

My latest read, Four Queens, by Sherry Jones is one of those books that have been kicking around my place for ages, and that I haven’t gotten around to reading before now.  And that probably wasn’t a bad thing.  I’m a little torn about whether or not I can praise this book, or if I should pan it.  Let me explain….

Four Queens is about a quirk in history.  During the 13th century, the House of Savoy (rulers of Provence in France) married four of its daughters very well; each of the four girls, Marguerite, Elénore, Sanchia and Beatrice married powerful men.  The eldest two married kings, and the younger two married men who became kings.  For a time in history when daughters were only worth what they could bring their families through marriage, the House of Savoy cashed in big time.

My problem with this book is that each girl needed a book of her own.  Marguerite married the King of France (Louis IX), who had a mother that was a terror (Blanche, the White Queen).  Marguerite’s struggles the claim the love of her husband over his love for his mother, then his love for God, then his love for saintly behaviour would have been a compelling study of human natures.  Elénore married Henry III of England, who at the time was dealing with the fall out of the signing of the Magna Carta, which gave the barons of England unprecedented power over an anointed king, and the loss of lands in France.  All of this created an unstable political environment that would have been ripe for examination.

And don’t think the younger girls lived boring lives in comparison.  Sanchia, a quiet girl with aspirations of entering a nunnery, married Henry’s younger brother, Richard, who was the richest man in England, both in terms of wealth and ambition.  Unhappy with his lot in life, and captured with the beauty of Sanchia, Richard married her in hopes of making them power brokers.  But, as Jones portrays her character of Sanchia, this wasn’t too be.  Sanchia, a retiring sort of person didn’t have the strength to stand up to Richard.  (They ended up King and Queen of Germany.)  And Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Savoy, probably takes the cake in terms of potential for a book of her own.  Beatrice was married to Charles, Louis IX’s younger brother who, like Richard, was an ambitious man trying to carve a place for himself in the world.  Charles and Beatrice, to a lesser extent, didn’t seem to care who they had to step on to make it happen.  It’s a real cluster-fuck of a relationship between them, and would be horribly compelling in its own book.  (They ended up King and Queen of Italy – but not the Italy was we know it: Sicily, Naples, Albania and Jerusalem.)

So, keeping in mind that you should never expect a book to be something it’s not (because, in the words of my thesis supervisor, you should write that book yourself), I just wish it had been fleshed out, and made into a series of four books.  As it is, one book doesn’t leave enough room for a full exploration of situations and characters.  It was frustrating to be flipping from one sister to the next, because you didn’t want to leave one narrative for another.  While Jones is a capable author (the characters are engaging and the writing style is solid), she appears to have bit off too much to handle in one book.  And that’s the major flaw in this book that keeps it from being a good read.

So, final verdict?  If you’re looking for a quick overview of the history of the time, then this book might be for you.  However, if you get easily frustrated by switching narratives, or a lack of exploration of a character’s thoughts/feelings, then this book isn’t for you.  On a whole, I’m not saying I’ll never read another Sherry Jones work, but Four Queens isn’t the best of calling cards – there’s just too much information packed into one book for an enjoyable read.

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