The Virgin's Lover
by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Virgin's Lover / 0-7432-6926-8
I really cannot understand why Gregory books seem to be so hit-or-miss. "The Constant Princess" was wonderful - great history, great story. "The Other Boleyn Girl" was, well, it was poor history but a decent story, and that's really all that matters. "The Virgin's Lover" isn't even a good story, and I really cannot understand why not.
The story ostensibly centers around Amy Robsart, Robert Dudley's wife. Amy is distressed that her husband now has a place at the palace in the new Queen Elizabeth's court. This upsets her because, in typical Gregory fashion, the political marriage between Amy and Robert is really a romantic marriage between two lovers. We have to take Gregory's word on this matter, though; the two 'lovers' are invariably nasty and cruel to each other. Robert is unforgivably distant, forgetting to send a message when he is unexpectedly absent over Christmas; Amy is petty, childish, and nagging - reveling in urging Robert to listen to prophetic dreams and stay out of battle (as if he has a choice in the matter), and gloating openly when his brother dies in the same battle. Frustratingly, Amy prays excessively for the death of Queen Elizabeth when it would be far more realistic for her to pray for the death of her callous husband. When it is made clear to the reader that Robert abandoned Amy long before Elizabeth came to the throne, then this animosity towards Elizabeth fails to endear Amy to us. Unfortunately, Gregory has managed to give us characters who are totally unsympathetic, with the end result that we do not particularly care about Amy's abandonment (since we would abandon her, too) nor do we care about Robert's infidelity (since his love clearly has no value).
With the "main" characters thus rendered meaningless, all we have left is Elizabeth. This is where the novel's flaws show most badly - Elizabeth has been reduced to a silly, vacillating, pleasure-seeking, childish girl who is barely capable of making the slightest decision. She throws temper tantrums in church mass, and leaves it to her advisers to pick up the pieces. In fact, she leaves ALL the affairs of state to her advisers, since the affairs of state are dreadfully dull and she is just a winsome 25 year old girl without a serious thought in her silly head. Yet on the next page, Gregory will inform us that Elizabeth's long years of imprisonment and uncertainty seasoned and aged her and made her fit to rule - but we never see any of that seasoning in action. Turn the page again, and there is stupid, childish Elizabeth again, because the plot demands that she be so. If I didn't know the author better, I would assume that the writer had serious issues against women, because that's how badly Elizabeth is portrayed here - and what is worse, the characterization of her as a promiscuous idiot flies in the face of all historical fact about the woman.
Which brings us to another major flaw in Gregory's writing here - ninety-nine times out of a hundred in this book, she TELLS rather than SHOWS. A good author shows a character's emotions, reactions, and conversations, so that the reader can intuit from these glimpses whether the character is immature or childish or wise or altruistic or any number of character traits. Instead, Gregory just tells us "Elizabeth is this," or "Elizabeth is that," and thus is all subtlety lost completely. Paragraphs are written in this sort of style: "Dudley handled all the coronation details, because Elizabeth did not care how the coronation was planned, only that everything be perfect. Elizabeth never cared about the how or why - she was a player on a stage and she only demanded that the other actors play their parts perfectly." Good literature is not written this way; the same point could have come across much more memorably if Gregory had fabricated a conversation where Dudley tried to involve Elizabeth in the ceremonies and she reacted with disinterest. This would have given us some insight into Elizabeth without having to simply memorize what Gregory tells us about her.
I really cannot recommend this book. Obviously, it has struck a tone with some readers and perhaps you will enjoy it, but I would recommend looking for it at the library before buying a copy. I felt that the history was bad, the writing was dull, the characters were irritating and uninteresting, and the story was lacking any kind of drama or interest.
~ Ana Mardoll
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