Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Perfect 10:

THE SISTER QUEENS – Sophie Perinot
New American Library
A Perfect 10
ISBN: 978-0-451-23570-1
March 2012
Historical Fiction

Provence , France , and England ; 1234-1254

Two sisters…
Two queens, married to enemy kings…

Sisters Marguerite and Eleanor Berenger were raised happily in Provence and content in the love of their parents, their childhoods not unlike any other family of mild noble standing. Even as Marguerite knew she would one day become the Queen of France, wife of Louis IX, she would never forget her dear parents or her sister, Eleanor. The day comes when Marguerite is sent off for her wedding, and she is sure that she will fall in love with her betrothed on sight, whose handsomeness and gallantry is known across the entire continent. Who in their right mind would not love the great French king?

Eleanor, not one to be outdone by her sister, looks forward to her own wedding, and some years later is married to the English king, Henry III. Upon their first meeting, Eleanor is not much impressed with the less-than-statuesque monarch, but in him she senses a loyalty and sense of honor she wasn't expecting. It doesn't hurt that their wedding night outshines even her highest hopes of a great passion. As a young girl, Eleanor did anything she could to outdo, or at least do as well as, her elder sister, and she keeps hope tucked close to her heart that Marguerite fares well in her new role as the French queen, and that she has found the rich love that Eleanor has found in her own marriage.

Through the years, despite England and France 's rivalry, Eleanor and Marguerite maintain a relationship through numerous letters, detailing their own daily lives, failures, desires, dreams, and fears. It is almost impossible to think of these sisters remaining close through their correspondence, not seeing each other for many years until much later in their marriages, but they do it…and do well. THE SISTER QUEENS is a story of deep sisterly and familial love that knows no bounds, as well as a richly drawn portrait of the bitter disputes two countries suffered before and throughout the thirteenth century.

At its heart, that's exactly what THE SISTER QUEENS is, a story of family and loving them despite their faults and because of their strengths. Eleanor and Marguerite are not perfect by any means, but they were raised to be the ideal spouses for their respective husbands. It is shown through their letters that though they were queens in their own right, they still had all the humanly weaknesses and doubts as any other woman. For Marguerite, it was winning the heart of Louis and trying to rival his deeply entrenched love for God and the Catholic religion, while also trying to compete with his mother, Blanche of Castile, the Dowager Queen of France , who fuels her son's religious zeal (a struggle even by today's standards). Eleanor slowly falls in love with Henry, despite his weak rule of England . She wishes he would preside over his country as strongly as he loves her. As Henry's wife, Eleanor thrives under his loving attention and seeks to make him happy at all costs, but also looks for ways to be a helpmate and assist her husband in his decisions for England .

I love having the opportunity to read debut books such as THE SISTER QUEENS. If any future novels by the very talented author, Sophie Perinot, are to be judged by this one, then I can see a very successful career in her future. It's very rare that it takes me only two days to read an historical fiction book (they're notoriously 400 to 500+ pages), but that's what I did. The story, its very heart and soul, stayed with me for many days after. I think it resonates with me because of my relationship with my own dear sister (who's about to make me an aunt this summer!).

With an extremely large cast of characters that I wouldn't be able to do justice in a simple review, THE SISTER QUEENS would not be half the story it is without them, naturally. My love of British—and often, French—history is not because of its colorful battles and pageantry, but for the people who lived during those long-gone eras, noble and common alike. Here we get a taste of an England who still reels from the many land disputes it suffered because of the French (Henry's and Louis's fathers really hated each other), but also a look at Louis's going off to the seventh Crusade in 1248 and how it affects his wife and their relationship, which takes up most of the latter half of the book. The effect of Louis's crusade has far-reaching arms, and England pays close attention as well while the French king fights for the sake and honor of God.

It is books like this that appease (and whet) my Francophile and Anglophile appreciation. As soon as I turned the last page, I was quickly looking up whatever I could about the people who bring THE SISTER QUEENS to life. To me, that's the hallmark of a book that deserves a Perfect 10.

There, I said it. THE SISTER QUEENS is probably my first Perfect 10 in well over a year—but it certainly merits at least that.

Amy Hardy

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