Monday, October 25, 2010

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland

I am a die-hard Cecelia Holland fan. Great Maria is one of my favorite books (see my previous review) with Jerusalem (a story chronicling the events leading up to the battle of Hattin) ranking right up there with it. I’ve always admired Holland’s ability to breathe life into her characters and plunk me right into whatever time period she’s writing about. She can create extraordinary dramatic tension with the subtlest emotional interactions, never veering into melodrama. In one powerful opening scene in Jerusalem, the rough knight Rannulf, a brutal Templar who joined the order to atone for horrific sins, emerges from battle to find one of his younger comrades dying. The boy is frightened. Rannulf can do nothing for him and his mind is still dealing with the battle and its aftermath. They exchange a minimum of words. Rannulf simply holds the boy’s hand and settles down to wait with him. It’s no cliff-hanger, but it was one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever read. Holland drew me along and left me stunned.

Which brings me to Holland’s new release, The Secret Eleanor. I anticipated this release the way a second-grader waits for Christmas. One of my favorite historical novelists was writing a book about not just one of my favorite time periods but one of my favorite historical characters. I pre-ordered the book. When it arrived, I had to force myself to finish what I was reading at the time before starting.

And so...maybe I was setting myself up to be just a wee bit disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a very enjoyable read. Holland delivers with her trademark ability to situate the reader in a different time and place. In this case, the time is 1151, when Eleanor was the dissatisfied Queen of France married to the ineffectual Louis VII. When Henry of Anjou came with his father to France to argue with Louis, plans were supposedly hatched between Eleanor and Henry. What came to pass shortly afterward, Eleanor’s annulment and rapid marriage to Henry, is history.

What happens in The Secret Eleanor is historical fiction. Seen primarily through the eyes of Eleanor’s sister Petronilla, it is an entertaining "what if?" type of tale. Eleanor is strong but vulnerable. Petronilla is loyal, but understands that too much is being asked of her. And when the line is crossed, how much is she realistically supposed to yield to the domineering sister she loves? Henry, absent for much of the story, is a necessary prop but a minor character.

I read the book in a couple of sittings and was genuinely curious to see how Petronilla would resolve her dilemma. I did enjoy the book and recommend it for historical romance lovers.

So where is my hesitation coming from? I think it’s because I was expecting a story about Eleanor of Aquitaine. Fictionalized, of course, but still, I had been looking forward to a book about the woman I’ve studied as a historical figure. Instead, it wasn’t real. It was "imagine this happened; there’s nothing to say that it could not have happened." And as much as I know that historical fiction is supposed to do this, to weave a web of "what-ifs" around historical events or people, sometimes it just jars too much. Eleanor’s life is so rich and larger than life to begin with, it hardly seems necessary to construct so elaborate a what-if to make her life...I don’t know...more interesting? If ever there was a life that didn’t need to be embellished with a "what-if" it would be Eleanor’s.

So in the end, I don’t really think of this as Eleanor’s story. I think of this as a wonderful historical novel about Petronilla, a fictional sister to a fictional queen, married to an ineffectual king. The queen escapes from her loveless marriage to find passionate love with a younger, stronger nobleman by means of an elaborate ruse. But she can not do it without the help of her loyal sister. Must she destroy that sister to achieve her ends?