Monday, December 21, 2015

Book review: Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois, by Sophie Perinot

When you’re the daughter of Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother and de facto ruler of France, you do as you’re told. After you’re introduced to court life, you avoid imitating other women’s flirtations, since it’s behavior unbecoming of your status. You acquiesce to potential marriage arrangements, even if it means a union with an unstable Spanish prince, or your unrefined Protestant cousin, Henri of Navarre. You must spurn the advances of the attractive Duc de Guise, even though your youthful heart yearns for warmth and understanding.

Above all, you must stay loyal to your family. While you’re an unmarried woman under their protection, there’s no opting out.

Told in an unobtrusive present tense, Médicis Daughter follows Marguerite de Valois, youngest sister of France’s Charles IX, and the difficult path she traverses over a ten-year period, beginning with her childhood in the year 1562. During this time, the setting swirls with dark undercurrents as France is torn apart by religious wars between the ruling Catholics and those they term heretics, the Protestant Huguenots.

Marguerite makes some unwise decisions, but hers is a constrained life, and it understandably takes time for her to awaken to the reality of her situation and figure out where to place her trust. There’s as much political scheming, secret romance, and family dysfunction as any fan of royal fiction could want as Marguerite comes of age at the French court, slowly becoming less of an observer and more of a participant.

Given all the intrigue that surrounds Marguerite, her story could have been an over-the-top drama-fest, but Perinot keeps the atmosphere tightly controlled, which increases the level of tension. This suits the time and place. Character is key here, and the combination of Marguerite’s personality and circumstances makes her a complex individual indeed.

Perinot excels at illustrating the nuances of interpersonal relationships, and those she depicts – and their transformations over time – are worth beholding. These include Marguerite’s interactions with her next oldest brother, the Duc d’Anjou; with her would-be lover, the Duc de Guise; and with the King of Navarre, the cousin she finally agrees to marry. All of these men, incidentally, are named Henri, although this doesn’t cause confusion. Instead, Perinot plays upon this historical fact to craft some revelatory character-defining moments.

As one can guess from the title, the mother-daughter relationship sits at the heart of the book, and this is handled with finesse. Catherine de Médicis, who inspires both awe and fear, is a powerful antagonist. To round out her character, she’s granted moments of vulnerability, ones that hint at her deep-rooted motivations at the same time.

The novel’s ending, culminating at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, is both devastating and magnificent, with Marguerite courageously taking a stand. At this point, Marguerite’s life is far from over, but the decision to conclude the novel here makes for an extremely satisfying character arc.

Médicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois was published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin's Press, this month (hardcover, $26.99/C$31.50, 369pp).  Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy.


  1. There's something deeply scary about this era in France. And yes, it can't have been fun to be Marguerite De Valois. It isn't often we hear anything from her viewpoint.

    1. Have you ever read Dumas' Queen Margot? I haven't, yet - though the film (which I saw years ago when it came out) was both gorgeous and utterly brutal. I couldn't watch for a lot of it. Definitely a scary period for France.