After read C.W. Gortner's novel, The Last Queen, about Spain's Juana la Loca, I knew that I had to get my hands on his latest work, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Reviled in history, Catherine has come down as a manipulative, scheming, poisoning monster who tyrannized her children, and was the person behind one of history's most brutal massacres, the St. Bartholomew's Day, that occurred in 1572 in Paris, and throughout France.
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The only child of the Duke of Urbino, and a French noblewoman, Catherine has been raised with loving care by her aunt, and her uncle Pope Clement V, and Catherine in turn did everything that they asked of her. But at the tender age of nine, revolution shakes Florence, the home of the Medicis, and Catherine finds herself imprisoned in a convent, and terribly treated by the nuns there. All mistreatment seems to do to Catherine is make her stronger, and more resolved to do her heritage proud. When a change in Florentine politics set her free, Catherine returns to Rome, and discovers that a marriage has been arranged for her -- in France.
Henry de Valois, the Duc d'Orleans, is the second son of King Francois. Having spent part of his childhood as a hostage in Spain, and being a second son besides, you could say that Henry has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Moreso, he's interested in someone else besides Catherine -- a beautiful, icy widow named Diane de Poitiers. Indeed, when Catherine arrives in France, Henry doesn't even bother to show up for the wedding, a humiliation for Catherine, but an event that brings her a very unexpected friend, none other than King Francois.
And during Catherine's early years in France, her husband is more interested in courting that widow rather than getting his wife pregnant. As for Catherine, she endures through the rumours of her barrenness, her birth as a noblewoman but not a princess, and learning for herself about the intricacies of French politics. But it's not enough, for Catherine is in love with her feckless, wayward husband...
Quite a tale here, and one masterfully told. Told through Catherine's eyes herself, we see her childhood, a bitter adolescence and the trials of a loveless marriage. But adversity breeds strength here, and Catherine has a resolve of iron -- to see her sons and France survive she will do whatever it takes, whether it is to consult with an astrologer, keep a vial of poison, and spies to dance at her whim.
In history, Catherine was known by her detractors and most modern novelists as Madame Serpent and Queen Jezebel for her actions. A great deal of this has come from protestant commentators, who especially vilified her after the marriage of her daughter, Margot, to Henry, the King of Navarre.
What I really enjoyed in this one was that the author, C.W. Gortner, kept the pace moving quickly, but giving enough historical detail about the place and time to let the reader feel that they are there. While some people and events are set aside -- one example is that Catherine had ten children, not seven -- there isn't much straying from the historical record. Too, actual events aren't drawn out too much, but several are very vivid, such as Catherine's arrival in France, the fateful tournament that her husband attends, and the St. Bartholomew's day massacres.
The secondary characters are just as interesting, with the one that caught me the most by surprise being Catherine's youngest daughter, Margot. Here, Margot is one very complex and at times subtle character, with a wide streak of cunning and malice to her that made me both cringe, and want to know more.
All in all, this is what historical fiction should be -- intriguing, quick-moving and based in reality. As with his recent novel, The Last Queen, Mr. Gortner has done very well here, and delivered up a story that is riveting to go through. I'm certain to be looking out for his next novel.
For those who are interested in reading more about Catherine de Medici and the turbulent times she lived in, I recommend Leonie Frieda's biography, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. Another interesting source is Alexandre Dumas' novel, La Reine Margot and the film adaptation, Queen Margot, which while it is not at all for children, is quite a story.
Four and a half stars, rounded up to five. Recommended.
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
2010; Ballantine Books, Random House Publishing, Inc.