Monday, July 16, 2012

Book review: Four Sisters, All Queens, by Sherry Jones

Family and politics are inextricably tangled in Sherry Jones's Four Sisters, All Queens, which examines feminine power in 13th-century England and Europe. One could expect no less in a novel about the four daughters of the resolute Beatrice of Savoy, Countess of Provence, who narrates the prologue. Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice may not have been the only quartet of sisters to become queens, but they may have left the grandest legacy, having shaped their world both with and without their husbands’ support.

Each chapter of this sparkling literary epic starts by listing the viewpoint, location, year, and age of each protagonist. This makes it easy to keep track of events, which proceed from Marguerite’s adolescence in 1233 through her middle age in 1271. She has the distinction of achieving her mother’s aspirations first, becoming queen to France’s Louis IX.

Despite Marguerite’s status, being married to an overly pious mama’s boy and future saint is no walk in the park, especially when her proud and jealous mother-in-law, the “White Queen” Blanche de Castille, denigrates her and refuses to let them consummate their marriage. “She simply loves power too much to share it with a husband. Or with her son, I hear,” Marguerite is warned before her coronation. Clever and clear-sighted, Marguerite demonstrates her bravery while fighting for her promised dowry: her Provençal homeland.

All four girls are reminded by their mother that “family comes first,” a theme that repeats throughout the book, but it’s Eléonore’s husband who exemplifies this most publicly. Kind but weak, Henry III of England angers his barons by placing Eléonore’s Savoyard uncles and his own Lusignan half-brothers in high posts. A determined woman who aims to prove herself to her adopted country, Eléonore knows her husband adores her but is forced to endure the label of “foreigner” and raise her family in an unwelcoming place.

Sanchia and Beatrice don’t marry kings but the younger brothers of their elder sisters’ husbands and are caught up in their battles to gain crowns of their own. Shy, beautiful Sanchia fails to achieve her greatest desire. She longs for the convent but, to please her family, weds a man who spouts such affectionate lines as “Love is the delicate oil, but marriage the vinegar.” Beatrice, to her surprise, finds that her husband’s ambitions neatly mirror hers, but one of her father’s actions sets her up for a lifelong conflict with her eldest sister. With Marguerite’s and Eléonore’s personalities so forceful, it would be easy for her and Sanchia to fade into the background, but both have a vivid presence on the page.

Each woman has a hard road to tread; throughout their lives, they achieve small triumphs but meet with many setbacks. Their tale not only encompasses sibling rivalry but its accompanying struggles for political supremacy and also religious intolerance, with both England’s Jews and France’s Cathars meeting with much worse than ordinary prejudice. Put simply, this isn’t a happy story overall, but Jones stays refreshingly true to the realism of the age while depicting each courageous woman’s unsung heroism.

Rather than producing a standard family saga, she focuses on the sisters’ generation and their emotional connections over time. While this makes the large cast more manageable for the reader, their many children can feel blurred and indistinct as a result – even the future monarchs among them. (Henry and Eléonore’s beloved daughter Katherine is a memorable exception.) The genealogical charts at the beginning are numerous and necessary.

The action sweeps from the magnificent cathedrals of northern France to the Egyptian port of Damietta on the bloody Seventh Crusade to the glittering chill of Aachen, Germany, but the impressions the women formed in their childhood home, with its troubadours and trobairitz and “days of wine and poetry,” continue to influence them. The novel’s elegant language has a subtle lyricism about it, as if to emphasize that they carry Provence with them wherever they go.

Four Sisters, All Queens was published by Gallery/Simon & Schuster in May at $15.99/C$18.99 in trade paperback (434pp + epilogue and readers' guide).

13 comments:

  1. I have this to read. I am hoping to get to it soon!

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    1. I'll be curious what you think!

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  2. Great review! Can't wait to read this myself.

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  3. Sarah, thank you for reading and reviewing FOUR SISTERS, ALL QUEENS. :) I am honored by this review!

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Sherry, and best wishes for success with your novel!

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  4. Anonymous1:45 PM

    There's also a biography of these sisters by Nancy Goldstone - FOUR SISTERS, THE PROVENCAL SISTERS WHO RULED EUROPE - that's good.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. Hi Sarah, I haven't read Goldstone's book yet although it was mentioned in the afterword as the inspiration for this one.

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    2. I read Goldstone's book, too, found it very interesting and certainly readable.

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  5. Sounds a bit like a higher-class "The Real Housewives of 13th Century England"....

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    1. There is some competition between the sisters, but it isn't soap opera-ish, if that's what you mean!

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  6. I have this one to read and am very eager now after your review -- esp when you said, "The novel’s elegant language has a subtle lyricism about it..." YUM!

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    1. I wasn't expecting it to be literary fiction based on the packaging, but it could easily fit in that category. A pleasant surprise! It's not one to speed through. I'll look forward to your review!

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