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4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book, that could have been longer, 27 Oct 2012
This review is from: The Confessions of Catherine De Medici (Paperback)
For over a generation, Catherine de Medici committed fair deed and foul to keep her family on the French throne. It was not an easy task, particularly thanks to the eight appallingly bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that destablised the region. In 1572, sectarian tensions erupted with the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants were brutally murdered across France. Queen Catherine, rightly or wrongly, has been blamed for it ever since - either for deliberately orchestrating the massacre or for her political incompetence in failing to prevent it. A foreigner, a woman and a politician, Catherine was widely loathed in France by the time of her death (her son could not even give her a state funeral in Paris, because of threats the body would be attacked and destroyed) - and as Marie de Medici, Anne of Austria and poor Marie-Antoinette were to discover in centuries to come, being compared to Catherine de Medici was about as bad a political insult as Frenchmen could give.

From the extraordinary story of Catherine de Medici's life and career, C.W. Gortner drew inspiration for his second novel. "The Confessions of Catherine de Medici" is told in the first person, with Catherine reflecting on life from her childhood in the 1520s being educated by her Aunt Clarice until the 1580s, which saw her favourite son's desperate attempts to save the monarchy from the ambitions of the Catholic Holy League.

To begin with, what's wrong with "Confessions"? Well, in the first place, it's too short. Or, at least,it certainly feels like Gortner wanted to write a much longer novel. It sometimes feels that the book is a bit rushed and although it gets all the major events of Catherine's journey, that kind of comprehensive coverage comes at the expense of descriptions of the palaces, fabrics, clothes, jewels and food that made-up the queen's every-day life. There are also a few errors on etiquette and forms of address, which may seem trivial but, like descriptions of the everyday, it adds to the experience for the reader in experiencing the very different world Catherine lived in. I also felt that chapters 1 to 17 were enjoyable reading, but after chapter 17 Confessions became unputdownable. (It's not a real word; I know.) Without giving too much away, it's in chapter 17 that Catherine finally manages to acquire some political power for herself and it's also in that chapter that one of the characters I personally found most irritating finally snuffs it. (The character was irritating through no fault of the author's, I should point out. I simply found myself wanting to cigarette burn him throughout most of the story.)

For history fans, Gortner also deserves kudos for his clever characterization of some of the other major players in Catherine de Medici's life. His portrayal of her husband's mistress, the legendarily beautiful Diane de Poitiers, was a favourite of mine. Diane de Poitier's physical loveliness and her elegant manners have blinded generations of historians to what a monumentally unpleasant individual she was. Greedy, selfish and cold, Diane emerges from Confessions as the paragon of self-obsession she undoubtedly must have been in reality. There's a moment when the two women meet for the final time in the novel, where I very nearly cheered.

Catherine's eldest daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, is also interestingly portrayed. (Mary's mother was a French aristocrat and she was brought up in France.) Queen Mary is shown as a pretty girl who happens to know that she's pretty and she therefore acquires all the benefits and pitfalls to her personality that such life-long knowledge can bring. Mary is not, however, presented as necessarily unpleasant and her relationship with Catherine is nuanced and fair to both women. Catherine's youngest daughter, Margot, of "La Reine Margot" fame, is always a fascinating figure and Gortner does her justice. Thanks to her own memoirs and Alexandre Dumas's nineteenth-century novel about her, Margot has gone down in history as a romantic legend. However, she and her mother were not on speaking terms later in life and since this is a novel from Catherine's perspective, Gortner presents a very different, but equally interesting, portrait of Princess Margot.

Perhaps my favourite part, however, was Catherine's own favourite child - her third son, Henri, Duc d'Anjou. Despite the feverish denials of French nationalist and Catholic historians, there can be absolutely no doubt to the logical mind that Henri III was gay. Or rather, he was what we would now recognise as gay. Because of this, Henri is usually presented as an effete, sleeked, unnatural transvestite who frittered away his mother's political legacy and cavorted with his male lovers whilst France collapsed around him. Twain's comment that the pages of history are written with the ink of fluid prejudice is especially true in Henri's case. Today, we can, or we should, look at Henri III's life differently. Undoubtedly, he made many, many mistakes as sovereign, but historians have rightly pointed out his work ethic, his strong commitment to the institution of monarchy and his genuine respect for his mother's achievements. Gortner is on top of this change in perception and Henri III emerges from the pages of this novel as a much more complicated, perhaps even a more likable, figure than in any of the other plays, novels or films inspired by his family's improbably-dramatic lives.

"The Confessions of Catherine de Medici" is a very good historical novel. I enjoyed reading all of it, but after reaching the second half, I suddenly wished it had been a good deal longer. The eponymous heroine is tough, determined and, if occasionally unlikable, you have to admire her tenacity and resilience. One can feel Gortner's own admiration for his leading lady shining through and it's that determination to present Catherine as a figure worthy of respect, as well as interest, that makes "Confessions" such a clear labour of love for the author and a very enjoyable experience for the reader.
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