The Confessions of Catherine de Medici: A Novel
by C.W. Gortner
Release Date: May 24, 2011 (Softcover Edition)
2010 Ballantine Books
Softcover Edition; 391 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Review Copy from Pump Up Your Book! Virtual Book Tours
4.5 / 5 Stars
The last legitimate descendant of the illustrious Medici line, Catherine suffers the expulsion of her family from her native Florence and narrowly escapes death at the hands of an enraged mob. While still a teenager, she is betrothed to Henri, son of François I of France, and sent from Italy to an unfamiliar realm where she is overshadowed and humiliated by her husband's lifelong mistress. Ever resilient, Catherine strives to create a role for herself through her patronage of the famous clairvoyant Nostradamus and her own innate gift as a seer. But in her fortieth year, Catherine is widowed, left alone with six young children as regent of a kingdom torn apart by religious discord and the ambitions of a treacherous nobility.
Relying on her tenacity, wit, and uncanny gift for compromise, Catherine seizes power, intent on securing the throne for her sons. She allies herself with the enigmatic Protestant leader Coligny, with whom she shares an intimate secret, and implacably carves a path toward peace, unaware that her own dark fate looms before her - a fate that, if she is to save France, will demand the sacrifice of her ideals, her reputation, and the passion of her embattled heart.
I've always been absolutely fascinated with this era in history as there seemed to be an abundance of very strong female rulers who led rather interesting, if tumultuous, lives That Catherine de Medici was at the center of a lot of events in Europe during this time is without doubt, and yet she always seemed to be branded in a negative light when compared to her counterparts. I often wondered what would cause such a woman to have such a reputation and whether it was well-deserved or whether it was because she was such a strong figurehead that men would often brand her such a thing as they didn't know what to make of her.
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici shed some light on the personal side of Catherine's life and the personal tragedies she suffered, first in Italy and then in France as the Dauphine, as Queen living in the shadow of Diane de Poitiers, and then finally as Queen Mother and Regent valiantly trying to keep her family alive and strong. With an immense amount of research blended into a fictional account of Catherine's life, we are given a rare insight into a woman who strove to save her family and attempted to survive by her wits in a country torn apart by religious strife and the countless manoeuverings of the nobility in a search for ultimate power. Fact and fiction, mythology and legend all blended in seamlessly to give an engaging and interesting look at one of the most difficult and dare I say, misunderstood, women of the sixteenth century.
I have always been fascinated by Catherine and I thoroughly enjoyed the personal take on her life in this novel. Some of the stories I've read about her portray her as more of a paragon, one who easily loses her temper, and has even beaten her own children, while in this novel, she appears softer and warmer. Although references are make to her cold heart and to her political decisions, the story revolves more around the personal Catherine rather than the political one, probably the only thing in which I was disappointed in this novel. I would have liked to have read more about some of the political issues that were glossed over in this novel, but the novel really wasn't about those; it was about her own personal life and the decisions that really affected that personal life. Catherine did make some poor decisions with regards to the religious strife that was tearing her country apart as I don't think she ever fully realized the full nature of the Huguenot religion and how far they would defend their right to worship and lead as they saw fit; I think she only saw it in a political sense and didn't look beyond the implications of that. I also don't think she ever truly saw her children for what they were and who they were, but only as pawns to the throne she was protecting. While she certainly loved them, she definitely underestimated the political influence they carried and was blind to their faults and their strengths. I also believe she made poor choices in some of the people she chose to trust in her inner circle, blind to the depths that some will go if given cause, and had to deal with the repercussions of trusting people who ultimately betrayed her trust.
Gortner writes with a beautiful lyrical style that evokes the power of his characters and makes you feel like you are right there with them. From the amazing and deep Nostradamus, to the stern Philip II of Spain, to Coligny, to Henri de Navarre, to Diane de Poitiers, to her children, all are noteworthy characters in a novel full of vivid historical figures ready to leap off the page. The descriptions of France during that time are great as well, and having visited most of the places talked about in the novel, I could envision the court at Amboise or Chenonceux, the colour and the pageantry that would have existed at that time, as well as the vivid details of the squalor and destruction that the religious wars left behind.
Catherine seems to come into her own far more fully once a widow, and I found her a lot more interesting during this time period. Gortner makes use of the legends and stories that surrounded Catherine while alive, addressing the issues of sorcery and her reputation as a witch and "la serpente", all the while keeping her human characteristics alive and making her seem more human. While Catherine was often able to laugh off some of the things said about her, she often used them to great effect in her capacity as queen, often allowing the rumours to persist. She is continued to be seen as a woman who saved the throne of France until the French Revolution, never losing faith in her religion, always believing there could be peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots. It is refreshing to read about Catherine as a woman and a mother, rather than as a ruthless ruler who will do anything to achieve an end.
The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is an entertaining, fun read about the life of an enigmatic, difficult queen. If you are looking for an account of Catherine's political life and political achievements (and perhaps a more accurate historical truth), I am afraid you will be disappointed and need to look elsewhere. However, this novel gives us a more personal view into what life would have been like for a young woman, torn from her native country, and brought to marry into a political powerhouse and forced to navigate the difficult waters that ensued, especially considering the religious strife that existed during this time. I found myself engrossed in Catherine's life, and enjoyed reading this more personal account of the woman she would have been. I am definitely looking foward to reading Gortner's next novel, a focus on Isabel of Castile, when it is released.
One lucky reader will have the chance to win a copy of The Confessions of Catherine de Medici. Contest closes 30 June 2011. Contest is open to residents of Canada and the United States.
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