I had previously read "The Other Boleyn Girl," by Phillipa Gregory, back when it was all the rage, and topping the bestseller lists, and could be found in every airport bookshop from here to Heathrow. With the fairly recent release of the blockbuster movie (and now DVD), however, I decided to read it again, in preparation for watching the film, which will be Netflixed to me shortly.
I must add, before I start on my thoughts on the book, that I have read those novels by Gregory that followed "Boleyn Girl" : "The Queen's Fool," "The Constant Princess," and "The Boleyn Inheritance." I was completely unimpressed by the last two, which spurred me to go back and read "Boleyn Girl" to see if it really was as good as I thought the first time, or if it had been a fluke.
Indeed it was as good, and even moreso, since I have learned much about the history of the time, apart from the book. "The Other Boleyn Girl" chronicles the rise of Anne Boleyn, and subsequently the fall of Katherine of Aragon, in the court of King Henry VIII. The story is told in first person, from the perspective of Anne's younger sister Mary, aptly dubbed "the other Boleyn girl." The first third of the novel follows Mary's story, as she becomes Henry's mistress, against her wishes, to please both the king and her controlling and powerful family. Mary then fades, as Anne steals the attention of the king, and launches a relentless assault of seduction, merriment, and manipulation, to throw aside Katherine of Aragon, Henry's legitimate wife and the Queen of England, and take the throne for herself. The final third of the book gruellingly outlines Anne's downfall, her ambition and desperation to secure herself and her family by bearing a royal son, her failure to do so, and the consequences she pays for her sins.
Gregory's characters are real, filled with passion, and personal. I found myself completely loathing Anne, and feeling quite sorry for Mary, but somehow understanding the ambition, the need, and the desperation each sister felt. Some parts of the story were pure fiction, and much was based on speculation. However, Gregory's attention to detail and respect for historical facts allowed her to weave the fiction seemlessly with the history. We will never truly know Anne Boleyn's temperment, her choices, her motivations, and so we are allowed to speculate on her as either a great villainess of history, or an unwitting, helpless pawn.
As my review of the film is forthcoming, I must say clearly now that this was a fabulous book, and I highly recommend it. There seems to be a flood of Tudor/Elizabethan/courtesan/whatever-seems-historical books out there, most of them not worth reading, but "The Other Boleyn Girl," the novel that perhaps opened those floodgates, is an excellent read, a rivetting story, and just a plain ole good book.