Sunday, September 02, 2007

Guest Blogger Review: "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Here's a public service announcement from a fellow spinster, designed to save you from ever plucking this aberration from the book store shelves:

"The quote on the front cover is promising enough that it seems a fair buy for my upcoming book club [editor's note: never went] - a Liz Smith from Newsday claims she read the thing "in one delicious gulp." Seemed plausible and slightly tempting. Until 10 pages in, whereupon I decide Liz Smith is surely a pseudonym for a pre-adolescent girl from Yonkers and Newsday is possibly not as equivalent to the New Yorker as I had supposed.

Philippa Gregory's 'The Other Boleyn Girl: A Novel' (as opposed to what? A poem? An eggplant?) is a bodice-ripping gag-reflex dressed up in some clever graphic design as an eloquent exploration of an age of subtle political change, seismic geographical revelations, and a rift in theological thinking that would rip open the very fabric of western thought. Not to mention the beginning of shifts in consumerism, the arts, architecture, science and thinking on gender and sexuality. In short, a humanist cultural revolution that marked the change from medievalism to the early modern age is boiled down to such insightful passages as:
"He took me in his arms and said delightfully, promisingly: 'We have only a moment, my love: so this shall all be for you.' He would lie me on the bed, unlace my tight dress, caress my breasts, stroke my belly and pleasure me in every way he could think of until I cried out: 'Oh my love! You are the best, you are the best, you are the very, very best.'"

This from the age that brought us More's divinely satiric Utopia and Castiglione's floral dialogue in The Courtier, not to mention early English translations of The Bible and Erasmus' audacious wit. One starts to wonder if Gutenberg was in fact doing us all a service when he cooked up his idea of literacy for the masses. Fat lot of good that's done us, if we've gone from More to Gregory's much, much lesser body of work. (See what I did there? More to less. Get it?... Clearly, Erasmus would have hated my guts.)

Gregory's complete lack of characterization of the many people who needlessly clutter her book drains even the bodice-ripping scenes of any guilty pleasure. It's hard to suspend one's ever-diminishing disbelief when the main character voices-over make-out sessions with: "His tongue slid between my lips and stirred me. I wanted to eat him, I wanted to drink him, and then have him bear me down onto the holystoned boards of the deck and to have me, then and there, and never let me go." It makes one want to lace one's bodice right back up again and go join a nunnery. Shudder.

I won't even touch the larger issue of mistaken macro-history and revisionist feminism being lodged down the reader's throat. Tudor England was unfair to women! Men had the upper-hand! Daughters were subservient to their fathers! First wives get the shaft by upstart young tarts! Yawn. Tell me something we don't know - mainly, the complex social and economic currency of the female gender that still held a surprising amount of sway during this period.

Nonsense, says Gregory. Her main character (Anne Boleyn's sister Mary, natch) is a sassy girl ready to make her way in the unfair world: "For the first time ever I felt as if I had taken my life into my own hands and I could command my own destiny. For once I was obedient neither to uncle nor father nor king, but following my own desires. And I knew that my desire led me, inexorably, to the man I loved." You go, girl! Way to break free from paternalism.
And Gregory's claim in the subsequent 'Reading Group Guide' that she wrote the book so people could understand 'the deep poverty' of the sixteenth-century is truly bizarre, given the minimal number of characters not belonging to the royal inner circle. Those three or four 'poor people' that do poke their heads in for half a page are either mute or useless, adding nothing to either plot or theme.

I'm loathe to do this to you, dear reader, but I must also share Gregory's precious insight that "Margaret Atwood has written novels which have raised the standard of writing. Other writers, me among them, have raised the standards of research." Because she included a sort of bibliography at the back of the book, see? Pity the books date from the 1940s, 50s and 60s. The comparison with Atwood seems....somehow unholy, no?

I guess the 'delicious gulp' quote on the front should of warned me this was a Harlequin romance rather than an actual novel with depth, characterization and, well, plot.
Not to put too fine a point on it, my friends, but I think this reader would rather spit than swallow."

Thanks, fellow spinster & mystery guest blogger!


P.L. Kerpius said...

My friends and I have a traveling copy of Jennifer LaBrecque's Barely Decent that we mail to each other from state to state after we're done reading it ourselves. Hilarious, sarcastic email threads ensue. The book is a part of Harlequin's "Heat" series. Does "Boleyn" give "Barely Decent, " or I dare say, "Barely Behaving" some competition?

Also, "It makes one want to lace one's bodice right back up again and go join a nunnery. Shudder."


Anonymous said...

Yes, and I "should have" known that Spinster Aunt lacks her own skills after reading the following: (for shame!)

"I guess the 'delicious gulp' quote on the front *should of* warned me this was a Harlequin romance rather than an actual novel with depth, characterization and, well, plot.

Spinster Aunt said...

What does that mean, "lacks her own skills"? If you're going to be snotty about grammar and typos and such, you might at least try to make sense.