Author: Sherry Jones
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pub Date: May 8, 2012
What it’s about:
Amid the lush valleys and fragrant wildflowers of Provence, Marguerite, Eléonore, Sanchia, and Beatrice have learned to charm, hunt, dance, and debate under the careful tutelage of their ambitious mother—and to abide by the countess’s motto: “Family comes first.”
With Provence under constant attack, their legacy and safety depend upon powerful alliances. Marguerite’s illustrious match with the young King Louis IX makes her Queen of France. Soon Eléonore—independent and daring—is betrothed to Henry III of England. In turn, shy, devout Sanchia and tempestuous Beatrice wed noblemen who will also make them queens.
Yet a crown is no guarantee of protection. Enemies are everywhere, from Marguerite’s duplicitous mother-in-law to vengeful lovers and land-hungry barons. Then there are the dangers that come from within, as loyalty succumbs to bitter sibling rivalry, and sister is pitted against sister for the prize each believes is rightfully hers—Provence itself.
From the treacherous courts of France and England, to the bloody tumult of the Crusades, Sherry Jones traces the extraordinary true story of four fascinating sisters whose passions, conquests, and progeny shaped the course of history.
I was intrigued from the get-go as Beatrice of Savoy, their mother, introduces their story, detailing how she raised her four daughters more like sons, even calling them ‘boys.’ All four siblings were incredibly well educated for the time which turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. They are also encouraged to always remember their family ties, but that becomes more difficult as time goes on. The book raises interesting questions, where does one’s loyalty lie, with your birth family or with the family that one forges through marriage and friendship. Throughout the book those loyalties constantly come into question.
Both Marguerite and Eléonore (who marries Henry III of England) make incredibly advantageous marriages. Marguerite also has to contend with the mother-in-law from hell, Blanche of Castile (who threatens to take over the book), who fought hard to gain power during her son’s regency and is very reluctant to let go of it when her son marries. Eléonore has to contend with the xenophobia of the English court and a marriage to a man who is much older than she is. Both women have husbands who both resent their strength and intelligence but who also rely on it.
The book is told from the points of view of all four sisters, and moves pretty swiftly from Marguerite’s betrothal at the age of 13 to Louis IX of France through to deaths of Sanchia and Beatrice. It’s told in third person present tense which took me some getting used to, I didn’t think it was necessary and seemed more of an affectation. However, the writing is lyrical and haunting in places, it evokes the time and place without sounding archaic. While the book detailed the intense political climate of the times, the wars between England and France, the rebellion of the barons under Simon de Montfort, the botched crusade of Louis IX and the incessant fight for who is going to rule Sicily, the book is at its best when it focuses on the dynamic between the four sisters. Anyone who has a sister or even a sibling will find it all pretty familiar. Marguerite and Eléonore as the two oldest and the closest in age have the tightest bond while Beatrice is the spoiled baby, their father’s favorite which has unforeseen consequences later in the book. Caught in the middle is Sanchia, the most beautiful of the siblings and the most emotionally fragile. Her story is the most tragic out of all four sisters. Marguerite and Beatrice have the most contentious relationship as the oldest and the youngest sisters.
Ultimately I had a hard time sympathizing with some of the sisters. The quarrel between Beatrice and Marguerite comes across as petty and small. Marguerite’s bitterness and hardness as the years go by make her harder to like. Eléonore was more of a cipher than the other sisters. I was unsure what to make of her. Only Beatrice seems to live a happy life with her husband. Unlike her sisters, she puts his needs first before the needs of her family. All four sisters struggle with what the traditional roles for women were and their own upbringing.
My one quarrel with this book is that the book feels too small to contain their stories. I wish that the story had been split into at least two books so that we had a chance to really savor what was going on. I had a hard time at certain points in the book keeping track of what was going, particularly in England with Simon de Montfort’s struggles with Henry III. I felt as if I was getting the Cliff Notes version. Jones has clearly done her research, and she manages to juggle all four narratives, giving each sister a distinct voice.
Verdict: A riveting look at the lives of four medieval women who struggle with the bonds of family and loyalty versus personal ambition.