Our book club is reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory this month. The size concerned me a bit (661 pages) so I started it immediately after our last meeting to be sure I had plenty of time to read it. I needn’t have worried.. it is a very fast, easy read. I devoured it in less than a week. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about the book and the characters, and would try to finish whatever I was doing quickly so I could get back to it.
You might expect a book of this size to have lulls or slow parts. It doesn’t. The editing is tight, and the tension builds throughout. An absorbing page-turner; I could not wait to see what would come next.
There are those who don’t care for historical fiction because the outcome is a forgone conclusion.. the ending a certainty. For me, this was not an issue, as I knew very little about the 16th century English court or the reign of the spoiled tyrant, Henry VIII (aside from the playground song, “I am Henery the 8th I am!”). In this case, ignorance is bliss. I liked not knowing what would happen.
Framed by two executions, this novel reads like a 16th century soap opera, full of scandal, danger, murder, ambition, greed, opulence, sex, incest, and more. The Other Boleyn Girl is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, the lesser known sister of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Taking sibling rivalry to new heights, it tells the tale of two sisters vying for the attentions of the king, and a fiercely ambitious family who sacrificed their daughters in order to find favor, wealth and power.
Mary comes to court as a young girl. Married to William Carey at age 12, she soon catches the eye of the king. She is then ordered by her family to leave Carey’s bed to become the king’s mistress in the hope that their affair will yield land, riches, and power for the Howard/Boleyns. An obedient daughter, she sets aside her own life and desires and does as she is told. After several years and two illegitimate children, the king’s interest begins to wane. The more ambitious sister, Anne, is thrown into his path, and Mary falls from favor. The madness that is Anne’s exhaustive pursuit of the king takes over. Anne, using Mary and their brother George, will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She creates a situation with Queen Katherine that seals her own fate years later.
The historical detail is flawless and the research extensive. It was fascinating to learn about the way people lived, the inequality of English society (from deep poverty to amazing wealth), the expectations of women (proper language, proper manners, the ability to speak several languages, fine domestic arts), the small daily rituals and the use of household items like lice combs (yes, lice, even among the highest levels of society).
There are so many great passages in this book. When I read for my book club, I highlight quotes that I might want to refer back to during our meetings. I did a lot of highlighting in The Other Boleyn Girl! One of my favorite lines is a simile about the excesses of the court, found on page 54:
“There was a trail of extravagance and dishonesty and waste that followed the king round the country like slime behind a snail.”
Such vivid imagery! I was impressed by Ms. Gregory’s writing, the way she handled the complexities of the characters and the seamless blending of fact and fiction. This is an enthralling novel, one I would highly recommend.
You can check out Philippa Gregory’s website HERE
For information about the upcoming movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry VIII, click HERE
You can see our book club’s other selections HERE
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