Power down your cell phone, turn off your computer, disconnect your landline. Now imagine that you want to share your latest joy or current frustration with someone dear...say, a sister who lives hundreds of miles away. What to do? Write a letter, of course. But now imagine the roads are bad, conveyances slow, your sister’s whereabouts uncertain. It will take weeks, perhaps months or even a year for your letter to arrive. By then, your news will be old, your feelings changed. Your sister, when and if she receives the letter, will have questions to ask, advice to offer, secrets of her own to share. But it will take just as long, if not longer, for her response to arrive. In the meantime, your life continues to unfold in ways your sister will never--can never--comprehend. Do you even bother to pick up that pen?
Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, the protagonists of Sophie Perinot’s debut novel, THE SISTER QUEENS (NAL, March 2012), do reach for their quills, again and again and again. Despite distance, fallible couriers, scheming barons and marauding Saracens, the two sisters write to each other regularly, from the time they are separated by Marguerite’s marriage to King Louis IX of France in 1234 until they are reunited on a brief state visit between King Louis and Henry III of England, Eleanor’s husband, in 1255. Writing is the only way the sisters have of maintaining the bond of love they’ve shared since childhood, a bond so strong that each is as the other’s “own heart” (page 37).
Perinot deftly structures each chapter of her tightly written debut around an excerpt from one of the sister’s fictional letters to the other. As the chapters alternate in the first-person voice of each queen, the prefatory excerpt establishes which queen is speaking as well as the date and place from which she is writing. Since the chapter is recounted from that particular queen’s perspective, the reader becomes intimately familiar with the factual and emotional truth of her situation and the events in which she is involved. The interest in the letters, then, becomes what the letter-writer chooses to divulge to her sister and the manner in which she relates it. Armed with knowledge the recipient doesn’t have, the reader can follow in the letters the evolution of the sisters’ relationship as well as each sister’s personal growth.
For growth and change there is. Each queen faces distinct personal and political challenges, convincingly drawn. Marguerite, the reserved, obedient, respectable elder sister finds herself alone in France, married to a saintly but emotionally distant man who is ruled by his jealous mother and absorbed by the affairs of his kingdom and the Christians of the Holy Land. Eleanor, the more outspoken, willful and impetuous sister, arrives in England with a bevy of Savoyard relatives and quickly becomes indispensable to her adoring, domestic but diplomatically-less-than-adept husband. Each woman must learn what it means to be both queen and wife, how best to balance family and politics, and, most importantly, what she is willing to sacrifice in pursuit of personal happiness.
THE SISTER QUEENS is an admirable debut, well-written and richly imagined, peopled with unique characters and simmering with conflict. Despite its length, the story never bogs down with unnecessary detail; the politics of thirteenth-century France and England are sketched with just enough detail to support the dramatic action. The focus remains on the sisters’ relationship throughout, assuring thematic as well as structural cohesion. Ms. Perinot handles the alternating viewpoints with skill and ingenuity (pay close attention to handling of point-of-view in Chapter 40, where form and function unite for subtle but delightful effect). Readers will find themselves drawn to one of the sisters more than the other (I’m an Eleanor fan, myself), but that is one of the attractions of the book. Congratulations to the author for finding a little-explored moment in history and bringing it to life for modern readers with verve, demonstrating how the bonds of sisterhood transcend not only distance, but time.
[A word of warning to those who, like me, prefer “fade-to-black” love scenes: I'd describe sexual encounters in THE SISTER QUEENS as "all lights on."]
Come back tomorrow for my interview with Sophie about THE SISTER QUEENS!