The Week in Books 2008, No. 15

Having heard that the book version of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl
was better than the recent movie of the same name, and because I find the time period interesting, I decided to give it a go. The 661 page book is an engrossing story of Henry VIII’s relationships with Katherine of Aragon, Mary Boleyn, and Anne Boleyn, told from the perspective of Anne’s sister Mary, who was Henry’s mistress in between Katherine and Anne. Historical sources from the Tudor period are biased and sparse, and Gregory uses a thesis about the Boleyns that is disputed by other writers, but not totally improbable.

I should warn you that Gregory’s descriptions of court life are often sordid, ugly, lascivious, and more detail than you probably need to catch her drift. At times the book reads like a bodice-ripper, which is unfortunate, but at the same time it serves to underscore the moral decay and fast living of Henry’s court. The descriptions of the corpulent and gluttonous older Henry, with his disgusting infected open leg wound also underscore how utterly revolting it must have been for all these women who tried to provide him with an heir.

Overall, I think if you are interested in the Tudor period you’d do better to read one of Alison Weir’s books, but if you’re really into it and want a different spin (and can handle the bodice-ripping and oozing leg wound sections) you might like The Other Boleyn Girl.

Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother is a collection of letters that author Beth Ann Fennelly wrote to a young friend and former student of hers when the friend was expecting her first baby. I enjoyed the letters for their frankness about the wonder of childhood, the devotion a mother feels for her child, and the parts of parenting that are confusing or difficult or painful. Fennelly is a poet, and you can tell even in her prose because she often finds a particularly striking or new way of nailing down an emotion or circumstance that resonates with the reader in the same way that the limits of poetry force a writer to absolutely nail it in every single word and phrase. You can tell I am NOT a poet because it took me such a long and convoluted sentence to get that point across! More than just motherhood and pregnancy, Fennelly writes about life and literature and reading and ties it all together thoughtfully. Thanks Blair for the recommendation!

{Spoiler Alert} I read something Elizabeth Graver wrote about how she formed her characters in Awake so I was glad during the first half of the book to see how she just amazingly got into her main character’s head and wrote with such a gripping sense of the character’s struggle with life. The book is about a family whose youngest son has a rare (but real) disease that makes his skin unable to tolerate any light. Graver poignantly and wrenchingly gives the reader insight into what it must be like to have a child with a chronic and debilitating medical condition – the sacrifices that must be made, the pain of seeing your child suffer, the strain that puts on a marriage and other children in the family, and so on.

Then, after about 160 pages, the mother copes by having an affair. I skipped the next 100 pages of the book because I couldn’t deal with reading about her betrayal and went to the last chapter, where I read how the parents sort of shakily get back together, but don’t seem to really solve their issues, and the book ends with the mother choosing a path that seems to her endless, relentless, and hopeless.

The thing is, I’m sure that the book is actually painfully realistic. I’ve heard that most parents with chronically ill children wind up divorcing. Although I’m not in that situation myself, I found that I was tracking so closely with the character, and really feeling her pain, that when she made that decision to walk out on her marriage (troubled though it was) I felt like I couldn’t stand to read about it.

I’m not sure if Graver could have written her story differently because the character of the mother had no faith, no particular moral code, no moorings, no foundation of any kind, and thus not really anything to equip her to make another choice.

Some will doubtless wonder how I could read 600+ pages about Henry VIII’s adultery, but not finish “Awake.” All I can say is that the character development was so deep and moving in Graver’s book that the adultery seemed more personal, more disturbing, and more damaging than did the Boleyn girls’ actions, which seemed more like them just engaging in a distasteful obligation. I’m not explaining that very well, probably because it’s not terribly clear in my own mind.

Currently Reading:
Joshua, Psalms, Luke, 2 Corinthians
“Quiet Moments in Prayer” by Lloyd Ogilvie
“The Darling” by Russell Banks

For children’s books, check out The Kids’ Week in Books.

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