Review of THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by PHILIPPA GREGORY
I re-read this one and it more than lives up to my memories of its singular quality. Even knowing what’s coming, at least the major points both from history and my first read, did nothing to lessen my investment in the story; I adored every page.
Gregory is a master of beautiful, dramatic depictions of history bursting with the haunting sense of the inevitable. She makes me invest in all of her characters (even the despicable ones), because she makes me understand them. Though a part of me keeps wishing all these tortured souls will just, hey, go to therapy, make better choices, and live happy lives, the history becomes a character as well, a constant and inescapable reminder that in this time people had fewer choices. (Therapy wasn’t usually one of them.) So instead I find myself on a kind of empathy overload, utterly gripped by the tragedy of their circumstances.
THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress before he divorced his first wife and married Anne.
Gregory’s work always makes me feel, intensely. I know I’m reading a good story when I have strong emotional reactions where I have to look around me and remind myself that, in real life, nothing’s happening besides me on the couch with a book and a cup of tea. With THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL (and all of Gregory’s books), I become infuriated at betrayals, my breath catches at true romance amid all the forced marriages, a deep sadness sets in at characters resigning themselves to unhappy fates, and a contented warmth uplifts me when someone I consider deserving finally gets something they want.
Gregory’s writing is beautiful, of the invisible variety, meaning it’s so skillfully written that every word feels natural and I forget to think about the writing and only think about the story and the characters. Mary’s voice is so compelling and believable. I have read historical fiction by other authors that leaves me unconvinced about the character they have created: I don't buy that the fictional interpretation of that historical figure would really do what we know from history the real life person did do. Gregory is a master at forming characters with such clear motivations that for a moment I think she must have stumbled onto some diary none of the rest of us know about and discovered the actual mindset of the real person.
Among all her other strengths, Gregory is an expert with her pacing, especially impressive to me in this genre. Sometimes the timeline slows down to focus on one period intensely when a lot happened and other times the timeline speeds up and skips over a good chunk when not much interesting took place, but Gregory makes everything feel current and urgent. Anne may have been seducing Henry for years, but I feel as though I experienced every agonized second of wondering if she overestimated and overextended herself.
Greogry continues to be my historical fiction measuring stick. Whenever I read a historical novel by anyone else, I ask myself, “Is this as good as a Philippa Gregory novel?”