Sunday, March 02, 2008

Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

Ok, we all saw the book when it appeared in Barnes and Noble and Borders. Some of us may have even purchased it then, before the hype associated with the New York Times Bestseller list.

Then the commercials and the interviews started. You knew the title, perhaps, but not much more. A recent trip to Borders would have confronted you with racks devoted only to this particular novel, swathed in a new cover to promote the release of the new film upon which it is based. In some places, the bookcase would have been strategically placed next to a high-end TV set, running an endless loop of movie promos.

And yes, admittedly, at one point, I thought "read this book, see what you think" in the vain hope that perhaps one author in the present age "has it" and isn't composing trash like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or The Da Vinci Code on a patronizing 4th grade reading level.

Well, high expectations, or any expectations, are only destined to be disappointed.

The Other Boleyn Girl is not much of a novel, for all 600+ pages of it. The point of the genre of historical novels is to give the reader a more intimate view on a character or an event in the past--a view that the reader can't get, no matter how much history he or she has studied, because that third dimension is rarely plainly there in the documents left behind from that time period. The problem is in this case, Phillipa Gregory tells us a story we already know in a way we already know it, and she isn't even entirely accurate on that point, either. Case in point is the ages of the characters being rather off--Mary Boleyn, the main character and the famous Anne's sister, is hyped up here as the younger sister--younger than Anne by a year, when in reality, she was not only older than Anne, but older, more than likely, than the whole bunch of Boleyns from that generation. If her affair with King Henry VIII, timed in this novel at running from about 1522 to about 1526, would have corresponded to Mary Boleyn's mid-twenties, if not later in her life. Phillipa Gregory, either for dramatic effect or because of bad research, chose to make Mary about 14 when the affair began. It seems to me that she may have done this to further her ends to create the "naieve", young, malleable character in the form of Mary, and perhaps to make what turns out to be a very sad attempt to mould Mary in the form of a literary foil to the quick-witted, strong Anne Boleyn we know from history.

The problem is first, this character does not at all jive with what is known about Mary (who appears quite the opposite, and rather proud of that fact), and second, you can't create a "foil" in the literary world when you are telling a story from one character's perspective. The point is that a balance between the two characters' actions and thoughts and feelings, whether revealed or interpreted by the reader, must be established by the author's treatment of both characters equally. As you can tell, with a title like The Other Boleyn Girl, that balance does not exist.

The biggest problem for me is that I didn't care about the characters--not Anne, not Mary, no one. They were all too two-dimensional for me to care about. It was like I was reading a cartoon strip with pictures and minimal dialogue rather than a book. Gregory may have made her book so long because she filled it with empty words that only seemed to describe short, one-sentence volleys she hopes we consider conversations and events--no character development and no descriptions included.

Unrealistic bits in particular:

I know it offends every female on the planet today to "do the right thing" historically and have women accepting the fact that they are subject to the male authority in their world, but this was indeed the 16th century. Many would retort that "of course Gregory discusses this in the novel", and my point is that she does discuss it. Over and over again. Every other discussion. With something so ingrained in the culture of the world she is attempting to paint, there wouldn't be this much discussion about it by the people who are apart of this world, if any discussion at all. We, as modern readers, would just have to get over it.

Anne's fate gets overshadowed at every point that one could consider "obvious" in the text. We know what happens. Once or twice at powerful moments would be a great literary effect. Five to ten times in the first third of the book passes the "overkill" level on the meter.

The court of Henry VIII was a big place which included lots and lots of people. Gregory gives you the idea that Henry only interacted with the Boleyn family members during diversions. Apparently, this complicated Tudor world only encompasses King Henry, a few nameless ambassadors, a bunch of church people, Cardinal Wosley, Queen Catherine, a group of ladies in waiting--apparently reduced to Anne and Mary Boleyn, their extended family, and a nameless group of other people, and their brother, George Boleyn. Oh, and Mary's husband makes the occasional appearance now and again. Of course, this entirely leaves out the whole group of peers of the realm and their retinues, with the exeption of Henry Percy, who courts Anne briefly, and a random group of "Seymores" we never see a sign of in person (oh, and which serves as yet another reminder of Anne's fate). I cannot imagine that all of these individuals would have been so overlooked and left out in the real court of Henry VIII.

Oh, and I doubt the King of England would have been caught publicly nearly kissing any of his mistresses. Sorry, Phillipa, flirtations abounded at that time, but open affection was rather frowned upon and could have single handedly started a war with Spain while Henry was still married to Catherine in hopes of children. That didn't start, for those of you who are interested, until the court of Charles II when it was clear from the beginning that his wife was barren and he was riding the tide of backlash against the strict Puritans.

What did I realize? Phillipa Gregory's work here will shed a lot of light on why certain authors have been historically classified as "great writers". The answer to that question, nine times out of ten, is good character development, which is something entirely missed in The Other Boleyn Girl. Instead of three-dimensional, real people lost to the past, we watch a fabulous, colorful story fall prey to too much foreshadowing, people characterized by one or two attributes rather than human complexity, and the telling of events, both pivotal and ordinary, in the same, matter-of-fact way, whether it be a day with the children, a birth, a marriage, or a death.

And now for something completely different:


Jean-Luc Picard said...

The novel is certainly historical FICTION, though they are actual characters. I have read this book, and also have the full length audio book.

As you can guess, I'm looking forward to the movie.

ellesappelle said...

I think I agree with you. I can handle historical inaccuracy to a point, in a novel. But I just found The Other Boleyn Girl kind of boring. So that compounded the history thing.

M@ said...

My boss came in with this old dog-eared trashy paperback novel today w/ a centaur or something on the cover, which he'd procured at the local library.

I looked closely. He'd written the book!

I wonder, now, whether I have a future in something like chick-lit.....

Nice photo. That certainly makes living in England worth it. :)

courtney said...


i don't know that i'd ever have considered reading the book (i like to read but it takes me so long to get through a book because of other distractions that i'd rather just stick with the stuff that's been proven over time. i'm in the middle of jane eyre now...) but i was kind of looking forward to the movie.

do you suppose it will be disappointing as well? scarlett johansson and natalie portman are extremely talented girls. maybe they can bring something to the story the author of the book couldn't...

booda baby said...

Not this author precisely, but the limits of historical fiction is why I'm doing my little animated series about what 'women in history were really thinking.'

I'm with you on observing the boundaries of truth and thinking - not for any academic purity/shmurity - but because it's invaluable for the quality of OUR thinking to get it.

gagknee said...

your review is so much more articulate than mine are.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an honest, helpful review of The Other Boleyn Girl.

Not realizing it was a novel-turned-movie, I nearly wasted $10 hoping for a historically accurate movie.