Friday, June 22, 2007

General Fiction, Anya Seton

Review of Katherine, by Anya Seton: (Historical fiction)

Katherine is a work of historical fiction that explores the romance of John of Gaunt and Katherine de Roet, those eternal medieval lovers. The story goes that John fell in love with his kids’ governess when both parties were married to other people. The two became lovers for 40 years and eventually, near the end of his life (when they were both widowed), John made Katherine his third wife.

Seton creates a Katherine who is, for most of the book, endearing, and the love she shares with John is moving and believable. The book is filled with historical details of daily life, architecture, clothing, medicine, etc. that all create an interesting backdrop for the story. The author also elaborates on quite a few political happenings that might have effected the lives of the two heroes.

Unfortunately, Seton goes a bit too far with it all. Minor incidents that only slightly impact the main characters take up pages and pages of writing. Seton also painstakingly describes *everything*--every frill of every dress, every piece of furniture in every room. It grows quickly tiresome. And there is so much nastiness among the characters that it is sort of hard to bear. I guess that was the reality of life at any royal court, and the reality of any woman flagrantly committing adultery during a fanatically religious era. But it would have been nice to see Katherine overcoming, or at least trying to overcome, some of the bad sentiments of the people around her.

The book has its ups and downs. The interesting and evocative parts are so good as to make the book one that I would recommend to others. But I would do so with a caveat: don’t be afraid to skim. Many of the parts add little to the story, as do many of the descriptions. And they are not well-written enough to be enjoyable by their own right. I also would add one more warning: it’s a sad novel. It doesn’t seem to be one, during the first 300 or so pages, and it doesn’t purport to be one during the last 50. But for me, Katherine’s struggles dimmed her joys, and I couldn’t be quite as happy for the lovers at the end as I felt the author wanted me to be.

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