(I originally published this book review of The Rival Queens on a blog that I have since terminated. I am re-formatting and updating it here for Living the Learning Life.)
Book Review of The Rival Queens: Overview
In a nutshell: good story, wrong title.
In The Rival Queens, Nancy Goldstone covers this period of wars in France between Protestants (Hugenots) and Catholics chronologically. A revolving door of minor characters, including lovers, mignons, military generals, and swash-bucklers, enter and leave with impeccable timing. The writing is solid, and all the components of royal history are present in large quantity. There are scandals, intrigue, assassinations, a massacre, weddings, funerals, popes, liars, cheaters, swindlers, religious conflict, sexual promiscuity, bribes, duels, escapes, prisoners, blackmail….you get the point. It’s all there. You can’t turn a page without something surreptitious happening. It’s good history, and I enjoyed Goldstone’s retelling.
Unfortunately, her intended main characters of this drama fall victim to the dynamics of the context.
True, Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite (Margot) de Valois did not like each other. At all. Even a little bit. Except when it was politically expedient.
But that they were rivals seems a stretch. They were both staunchly Catholic. At times they were on the same side. Other times, enemies. Supporting Henri III? Or Henry de Navarre? Or Both? More correctly, self-preservation is key. Familial bonds did not deter their action when the other was threatening their current leader-of-choice.
Book Review of The Rival Queens:
What is a Rival?
My problem with the book has more to do with expectation than quality. It’s an incredible story, and it really does have every trapping of compelling drama that a novel needs. I was disappointed that although the women were part of the action, their dynamic did not meet my expectations for “rival.”
Rival indicates a level of personal desire to overcome the other. “Beating” the other is the motivation of a rival. More often than not, these women appeared motivated by winning the Catholic/Protestant question of their time. That may make them enemies, but not rivals.
There is a stronger case for the Henri/Henry duo in this story to be defined as rivals. In that case, by association of connection, then we could argue for rivals between the two women. But even that slips through the story in a few places when allegiances shift in response to the realities.
Book Review of The Rival Queens:
If Not Rival, What Then?
Both women had moments of political success and strategic posturing, but I was never convinced that either was motivated by selfish ambition towards power. And, even when power did come into play, they were most often fighting on behalf of someone else: playing the queen to a king. They were not impotent or without influence, but they were not themselves working towards a self-aggrandizing scheme. That they chose to be involved at all is perhaps their most exceptional feature—neither would sit placidly as a victim.
Henri III contained Catherine. She worked as a mediator and occasionally gave an opinion against an action suggested by Henri III. It was clear from Goldstone’s writing and the events themselves that Catherine was not in charge. Nor did it seem that she had her own designs of authority. She took what she had as long as one of her sons was on the throne. She would do what it took to keep them there.
Marguerite de Valois
For her part, Catholic Queen Margot, in the few happy years of her marriage to the Protestant Henry de Navarre, reflected warmly on their relationship. She made a few strategic decisions, motivated by survival, when their relationship devolved into isolation and manipulation.
Margot’s brief foray into espionage was motivated by support for her brother, Francois. It was brave, no doubt, and she was no innocent. But, even as her claims to power flickered she was not striving on her own account to settle a score with her mother or grow her own personal power.
In Paris, Margot lived lavishly, generously, and amicably with her ex-husband and his new bride, the current Queen of France. She was a favored aunt in the royal court. And in this she seemed content.
Both women had moments of effective decision-making, subterfuge, and success. But as the tale unfolds it continues to seem that their (re)actions were based on situations, politics, and survival. They did not make grabs for the throne or raise concerns over leadership rights.
Catherine tended to be reactive and Margot favored pro-action. Sometimes their strategies were successful, sometimes they backfired. A few times Lady Luck appeared to have more of an influence than anyone else.
Good story. But it doesn’t match the title. Maybe All’s Fair in Love and War instead? Because really, everything was in this one. Good read, just be prepared to enjoy the history and all the characters involved because the two Queens are a part of the story—not the whole story.
If you like history but tend to prefer fiction, don’t miss The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. It’s a beautiful inter-generational story set in 20th century Vietnam, and I finished it in two days!