REIGN OF MADNESS

Cullen’s second historical novel about Renaissance-era Spanish royals, this time concerning the “Mad Queen,” Juana La Loca.

Cullen’s challenge is considerable: find a viable story in the life of Juana, daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand, who is known chiefly for having spent 46 years imprisoned by her family as a madwoman. And find it she does, although it only covers Juana’s brief pre-imprisonment life. Ranging from 1493, when Juana, a teenager, first spots the flaws in her parent’s supposedly idyllic marriage, to 1509, when all the shoes of fate finally drop, this is primarily a tale of a woman’s futile struggle against the entrenched patriarchy of her time. As Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus) returns in triumph to her parents’ court, Juana is entranced by his son, Diego Colón. Soon, though, she is married off to Philippe the Handsome, a Burgundian archduke (and Habsburg heir) who rules Flanders. Far from home, she is at first infatuated with her Habsburg husband. However, as the licentiousness of Philippe's court compared to the relative austerity of Queen Isabel’s continues to shock, her Spanish ladies desert her, except for scholarly and chaste Beatriz. Philippe’s infidelities bring an end to the extended honeymoon, as does Juana’s delay in producing a male child. Their son Charles is born, but his deformed jaw (a Habsburg trait) impedes both nutrition and speech; however, Charles will continue the Habsburg dynasty as Holy Roman Emperor. A number of premature deaths has made Juana the heir apparent to the Spanish throne. But Philippe, by spreading rumors of her mental instability (due, he self-servingly claims, to excessive love for him, despite the fact that their marital relations are now mostly forced), manages to impugn Juana’s competence enough to elevate his own rank from King-consort to King. Juana’s ingrained ineptitude at both overt confrontation, and the more acceptable female route of subversive sabotage, will lead to her downfall, as will her passion for the commoner Diego. Although the outcome is known, the suspense never waivers.

 

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-399-15709-7

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2011

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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