The Wise Woman
by Philippa Gregory
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Wise Woman / 1-4165-9088-9
This is now my fifth Philippa Gregory novel I've read, and the fourth I've reviewed, and I cannot understand how Gregory can be so radically different with each novel, in terms of prose, technique, and sheer quality. "The Constant Princess" was wonderful - crisp, clean prose, with a little bit of didactic dialogue, but it fit Catherine's character perfectly. "The Other Boleyn Girl" was terrible history, but a decent fictional story, even if Gregory did rely a little too heavily on virgin/whore stereotypes, and even if she deliberately reduced her heroine into an idiot in order that everything could be explained to her in dialogue. "Earthly Joys" was so painfully boring that I simply could not finish it, and "The Virgin's Lover" was just awful, with characters' motivations just told to us in hurried prose, rather than shown to us properly in actual actions and dialogues. And now we have "The Wise Woman".
The writing in "The Wise Woman" is simply wonderful. The plot and the characters are so compelling because Gregory skillfully takes every stereotype and shortcut in a writer's manual, and turns each one on its head. The entire cast of stock characters are here: the Reformed Rapist Lover, the Bitter Barren Wife, the Kind Supportive Old Father, the Cruel Uncaring Hag, the Sweet Understanding Foster Mother. And just when we realize that we're dealing with historical romance stereotypical characters, and figure that we know the outcome of the story, Gregory chooses that moment to show the ridiculousness of the stereotypes and the reality of her own characters.
"The Wise Woman" does not have a happy story to tell. Entitled, rapist nobles do not reform into loving husbands. Bitter, barren wives have good reasons to be bitter. Noble fathers who seem kind to simple peasant girls have very different standards when it comes to marriage eligibility. Evil hags can still contain a kernel of kindness, and the nicest mothers are capable of cutting judgment and prejudice. Because these characters are so real, the plot is unpredictably bleak and shocking. Gregory seems to be asking the reader: Did you really think a lifetime of rape can be washed away by a pretty face? Did you really think that a lifetime of plotting and calculations would be abandoned simply because an old man is fond of a young girl? Did you really expect a happy ending?
Refreshingly, our heroine is also allowed to be a real person. She isn't a Virtuous Heroine, who will win marriage because of her pure heart. She's not a Schemer, destined for greatness because of her clever political wrangling. And she's not an Anti-Heroine, determined to tear down her tormentors at the cost of her own life. No, she simply is a real girl, full of the same virtues, vices, hopes, fears, angers, and loves. Gregory doesn't pass judgment on her character; we're not expected to see her as greedy for wanting a warm castle over a dirty hovel, and we're not expected to judge her for her actions, even as she becomes increasingly desperate and spirals into madness. For the characterization alone, I would give "The Wise Woman" five stars, and would point it out as an example of how to do a historical romance right.
However, there's a big caveat to all this before you rush right out to buy this book. There's a lot of material here that many people will find very objectionable. Of the many graphic sex scenes in this book, they all involve extreme violence, rape, forced drug use, or forced group sex. The scenes are often necessary to propel the plot, but they are certainly disturbing and will turn off a lot of readers. I wasn't offended by the scenes, but I did feel a little queasy after many of them - this isn't light reading material.
Secondly, Gregory has decided to make magic a real force in "The Wise Woman", and some of this magic could be disturbing or offensive to some readers. I think, in retrospect, that I would have enjoyed the novel more if there was a possibility that the "magic" was all in the heroine's mind as an indication of her spiraling insanity. As it is, Gregory makes it pretty clear that the magic our heroine works and suffers from is completely real, and not a hallucination. I would have preferred a little more subtlety.
The only other thing that keeps this from being a five-star book is the ending. I don't have a problem with the ending itself: it's realistic, it's cyclical, and it works. But I do have a problem with the way the ending seems rushed and tacked on, as if Gregory had a page limit to maintain and realized, twenty pages from the end, that - oh no! - she needed to wrap this baby up fast. Her careful, foreshadowing prose gets tossed out the window in favor of a dash to the finish line. The result is an ending that seems technically right, but feels horribly wrong.
Bottom line: If you are offended by graphic, violent sex scenes and/or graphic, violent magic, you will not enjoy this book. If you are a fan of historical romances and you would like to see some common stereotypes followed through to a dark and subversive conclusion, you may enjoy this book as I did. For all its joys, there are better novels out there, but if you are looking for something unusual and different, this is the Gregory novel for you.
~ Ana Mardoll
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