In brief, Palace Circle is a sparkling historical novel set amid the privileged world of the upper crust in early 20th-century England and Cairo. The first section is seen from the viewpoint of an American named Delia who marries an English viscount. The main characters are aristocrats, politicians, and socialites, and sometimes all three. It's important to emphasize that the novel is at heart a family saga, one in the classic British mold (mould). The main characters are all fictional, and the "history" presented is mainly social history -- which is rendered extremely well -- with some political history thrown in as World War II gradually approaches. Historical characters flit by in the background and are name-dropped into the storyline on occasion, providing the overall feel of a 1920s-era gossip column. The effect was totally appropriate for the setting, or so I felt.
My review done, I headed to Amazon to check what others were saying about it. Magazine critics adored the book. There were also 18-odd customer reviews, with an average of three stars. Okay, some people loved it and others didn't, and readers have the right to voice their opinions. What took me aback were some of the reasons they cited for their low ratings. There was remarkable commonality among them. Thus I present an informal case study on the undeniable significance of marquee names and marquee events and how they have come to dominate certain types of historical fiction, to the point of -- at least in some readers' minds -- redefining the genre altogether.
So, what were some of their criticisms about the book? My summaries are in bold, with examples provided from the Amazon reviews.
The fictional characters don't participate in major historical events.
"Important events are made known to us by the author, instead of letting us witness them. It's incredibly frustrating and had me putting down the book before it was over." (L. Flora)
"I would have preferred more insights into the various characters, and the reality of their current events which I would have expected to be more crucial." (Marie)
The historical characters aren't prominent enough.
"A lot of famous names are mentioned here, though they don't really play a main role - famous personalities such as Edward and Wallis, Winston Churchill, Prince and later King Farouk, Gamal Nasser and Anwar Sadat. I wished some of these characters would have received a bit more than a passing mention in this work…" (Z. Hayes; this was an exception, a 4-star review)
"The historical figures included in the novel aren't really a part of it, it's more like historical name dropping." (D. Joubert)
"Feels like famous names are thrown in just as filler." (KNSudha)
We don't get to "meet" any of the historical figures either.
"[Delia] meets and enchants people from Winston Churchill and his wife to the soon to be notorious David, Prince of Wales. But we never get to meet THEM other than by name." (NyiNya)
"Perhaps this continuous mention of famous personages is intended in order to classify Palace Circle as historical fiction. However, none of these figures do anything except appear at parties." (J. Perskie)
For all of these reasons, and more, it's really not historical fiction at all.
"I think this novel succeeds more as a period novel than a work of historical fiction." (Z. Hayes)
"Palace Circle does not seem to be historical fiction in the usual sense. Delia mentions famous people and places in history, and World War II is the backdrop for the story, but the historical aspect (at least in the beginning) isn't really fleshed out." (Guitarchick24)
"When I got this book from the publisher, it was billed as historical fiction and quite frankly this book is nothing close to historical fiction … My understanding of historical fiction is one peopled with characters from days past who take an active part in the movement of the dialogue and plot. That was absent here." (TrishNYC)
Furthermore, the author is no Philippa Gregory.
"It's unfortunate that the PR releases compare it to Philippa Gregory; it's not historical fiction." (D. Joubert)
"I have to completely disagree with the review which says 'Rebecca Dean has written a glorious novel that will sweep Philippa Gregory fans off their feet.' Stay true to Philippa Gregory until this author matures like a fine bottle of red wine!" (KK)
Philippa Gregory's name is all over the novel; there's a Nora Roberts quote on the cover ("If you like Philippa Gregory, you will love this book!") as well as a back cover blurb, which the Amazon reviewer cited above. The invocation of Gregory's name apparently indicates more than just a female-oriented historical novel with sweeping storytelling, romantic subplots, court intrigue, and bestseller potential. It can also imply the novel will have main characters that are not only real-life historical people, but also the movers and shakers of their time. Palace Circle fits most of the first set of categories, but not at all the second.
Do historical novels require celebrities to play more than passing roles, so that readers get the opportunity to "meet" them? Do major historical events have to be in the forefront constantly? This all reminds me of the curious reader reaction to Valerie Anand's The House of Lanyon, another British family saga that showed fictional characters interacting, in a historically appropriate fashion, with their social milieu. It also recalls Julianne's editorial comments on her recent market research survey, specifically her conclusions on society's obsession with celebrity.
In my latest reference tome, I wrote -- discussing the emphasis on social over political history in the works of Catherine Cookson and Janette Oke -- that the lack of reference to specific dates, outside events, and famous people in their novels doesn't diminish their value as historical fiction. I hope I'm not wrong.