Author: Jean Plaidy
Genre: historical fiction
Series: Catherine de' Medici #2
Pages: 402 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: first 1952, re-issued January 2013
Source: publishers via edelweiss
The second book in the classic Catherine de’ Medici trilogy from Jean Plaidy, the grande dame of historical fiction When Catherine de’ Medici was forced to marry Henry, Duke of Orleans, her heart was not the only one that was broken. Jeanne of Navarre once dreamed of marrying this same prince, but, like Catherine, she must comply with France’s political needs. And so both Catherine’s and Jeanne’s lives are set on unwanted paths, destined to cross in affairs of state, love, and faith, driving them to become deadly political rivals.
Years later Jeanne is happily married to the dashing but politically inept Antoine de Bourbon. But the widowed Catherine is now the ambitious mother of princes, and she will do anything to see her beloved second son, Henry, rule France. As civil war ravages the country and Jeanne fights for the Huguenot cause, Catherine advances along her unholy road, making enemies at every turn.
Jean Plaidy is certainly a prolific historical fiction author, but more and more I find that her work is hit or miss with me. I seem to fare better with her Tudor-centric novels than I did with this novel set during Catherine's life as regent of France for her sons. I read the first novel in the series, Madame Serpent, and was unimpressed if still engaged enough in the storyline being recreated to continue reading this second novel about one of France's most infamous Queens. While this is not the author's best novel, The Italian Woman does still manage to capture the time period shown and the essence of the unscrupulous woman at its heart. Coldly pragmatic and personally avaricious, Catherine was no saint but she was and remains an intriguing player in a game of court intrigue and power.
I would've enjoyed this more if it had felt less disjointed, especially as it starts. For one, The Italian Woman begins in the middle of Madame Serpent's chronology - Francis the First of France is still alive, Henry is still devout to this mistress Diane de Poiters - and, for another, the first ~80 pages are devoted to a character previously unknown on the scene -- the Catholic-turned-Huguenot Queen Jeanne of Navarre. An important player in the end of the Valois line and the beginning of the royal Bourbon line, her story is directly tied to that of Catherine and her sons, but I felt the way it was introduced slowed up the pacing and the storyline set up in the first novel. Jeanne is drawn into Catherine's web of manipulation and machinations, and provides a nice foil for the amoral Queen with her fortitude and certainty - but the first few chapters of this novel are stiff, and hard to engage the reader.
I could've done with more 'showing' than 'telling.' As a writer, Plaidy often veers more to the wrong side of storytelling, and it is very present as a problem here. Readers are told who/what/why about characters and events, instead of subtly crafting characters and situations that reveal themselves naturally. It's a bummer, because the cast of varied and often infamous characters (like.. Charles, or Henry, Duke of Guise) should be able to speak for themselves, yet Plaidy hardly ever allows them to. Instead of showing Margot to be passionate and headstrong, it is stated. Explicitly. Repeatedly. The Italian Woman is still very readable, but the characters are remote and more outlines than fleshed out interpretations of real people who lived, breathed, manipulated, vied for power, and usually if in so doing crossed Catherine's desires, died.
A fascinating woman in a turbulent time of civil wars and religious upheaval deserves more than the often lackluster version offered here in the second of Plaidy's trilogy about the "daughter of merchants" raised high - through luck, ill-fortune, or poisoning - whichever version of her ascension you choose to believe. Not the best offering of Jean Plaidy, but I will probably seek out the final leg of the series, Queen Jezebel, sometime in the future. The Italian Woman is a decent look at the issues surrounding the Valois court in the time of the "Reformed Faith", if one that stumbles occasionally. I think fans of Plaidy will enjoy, but those who are new to her brand of historical fiction may want to start elsewhere and work there way to The Italian Woman.