Friday, June 11, 2010


For Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, Paris was worth a Mass; for lovers of historical fiction interested in sixteenth century France, C. W. Gortner's new novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI (Ballantine) is definitely worth a read.

Narrated in the first person by Catherine herself, the novel attempts to humanize an historical figure long vilified by partisan accounts of her role in the bloody Wars of Religion that rent France asunder during the latter decades of the century. Demonized as a ruthless regent with an unquenchable thirst for power, the historical Catherine has been accused of murdering opponents with impunity, ordering massacres of defenseless Huguenots, and sacrificing her own children in order to maintain her dominion. In contrast to this heartless monster, Gortner creates a Catherine who, though far from cuddly, nurtures a compassion born of her foreignness and her unrequited passion for a husband who spurns her. Though devoted to her children as much as a queen might be, Gortner's Catherine is willing to sacrifice their individual happiness, as well as her own, for the good of her beloved France. Threatened by enemies on all sides and watching the hopes of her house dwindle as one Valois prince after another dies, Catherine struggles to hold the imploding kingdom together through compromise, tolerance, and the dogged pursuit of a vision of religious unity. Far from the malicious "Madame Serpent" of Huguenot proproganda, Catherine becomes France's savior, preserving the tattered country from foreign domination by uniting her Catholic daughter to her Huguenot nephew and preventing the powerful, ultra-Catholic Guise clan from usurping royal powers.

The scope of the novel is broad, covering Catherine's life from the age of ten to the moment of her death in 1589. Gortner handles this span of nearly sixty years with aplomb. He takes us through the tumult of Catherine's childhood in Florence as the lone scion of the now-hated Medicis; her strained marriage with Henri II of France, during which she is forced to share the king with his aging mistress Diane de Poitiers, governess to the royal children; the short reign of Catherine's first son François, during which the Huguenots first march against a crown caught in the unyielding grip of the Catholic Guises; the reign of her son Charles, during which she acts as regent and promotes tolerance towards the heretics even as she fights to keep France free of Spanish domination; and finally the reign of her son Henri III, whose failure to produce an heir brings an end to the Valois line. The task of condensing the life of complex figure who lived during a complicated era is a daunting one but well executed by the author. In order to keep the pace moving, he necessarily condenses and streamlines, but never strays far from the historical record. The events of Catherine's life coincide with important moments in the life of the country; in following Catherine's personal story, the reader comes away with a good understanding of the main trajectory of French history during these critical years.

Gortner keeps the emotional tension high. I felt a keen connection with Catherine, especially during pivotal scenes. Her horror, as the dreadful events of the Eve of Saint Bartholomew spiral out of control, is palpable. Gortner strives to provide an emotional substratum for Catherine's policy decisions. In an interesting and, as far as I can ascertain, historically fanciful twist, he attributes Catherine's lengthy efforts to establish a peaceful coexistence of Catholics and Huguenots to a brief yet intense love affair she has with the leader of the Huguenot cause, Gaspard de Coligny. For too long, Catherine's feelings for Coligny prevent her from recognizing the treachery of his actions and taking adequate precautions against him; as for Coligny, he devotes himself fanatically to his cause once he becomes convinced he has lost Catherine for good. Whether or not this relationship actually occurred between the historical figures, the affair works very well within the economy of the novel. We see Catherine, long repudiated by her husband, validated as a woman by a man who loves her, while the overarching conflict of religious philosophies moves from the realm of the abstract onto an intensely personal and engaging level.

Gortner treats the historical Catherine's purported fluency in the black arts with admirable circumscription. Although she possesses a few amulets and dolls and even a vial or two of poison, she never resorts to using them. She depends on her astrologer Ruggieri solely to determine propitious dates and draw charts for her children; her few meetings with Nostredamus result in his delivery of verses whose import she only understands after the events they describe occur. Rather than determining the course of events through spells and poisonings, Catherine simply receives glimpses of the future, unbidden and often terrifying. When she can, she uses these visions to guide her; when she cannot, they serve to remind the reader that Catherine was as much a pawn of fate as the molder of her own--and her country's--destiny.

THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is a worthy successor to Gortner's well-received debut, THE LAST QUEEN. I was thrilled to find the world of sixteenth-century France brought to life with such verve and finesse. Readers new to the era will find this an intriguing and accessible introduction, while those cognizant of the history will find in the vivid characterizations and narrative arc much food for thought. I thank Christopher not only for inviting me to read and review his engrossing novel, but for opening up a difficult yet immensely fascinating era to countless eager readers.


I'm pleased to be able to give away a copy of THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI to a reader who has made it to the end of this long review! If you would like to enter the random drawing, please comment below with your email address before 11 pm PST on Sunday, June 27. The publisher restricts this contest to readers in the United States and Canada only. The winner's name will be posted by noon on Monday, June 28th. Good luck!

If you would like to learn more about C.W. Gornter's books, please visit his website or his blog, Historical Boys. You can follow the stops on his blog tour at Pump Up Your Book Promotion. Be sure to return here tomorrow to read a wonderful guest post by the author on the relationship between Catherine de Medici and her father-in-law François I.


Amber at The Musings of ALMYBNENR said...

I've been wanting to read this but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet! Please enter me in the contest! amberr610[at]gmail[dot]com

Cheryl said...

Thank you for this wonderful and detailed review of Christopher's book. I enjoyed "The Last Queen" and was eager to get my hands on this one. I'm reading it now.

I'm glad you enjoyed Christopher's latest.

All my best,


Linda said...

Most of my HF reading has been of medieval England. But I'm becoming more and more interested in French history. I enjoyed Mr. Gortner's Last Queen and would love to read about Catherine de Medici. Thanks for the giveaway.

Hoarders Extraordinaire said...

this book sounds fascinating!


tbbycatt at gmail dot com

Danja said...

The Last Queen is sitting on my nightstand, and I can't wait to start reading it this weekend. I've read such good reviews about The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, that I can't wait to read it as well. Thank you for the giveaway and for posting such a good review of the book.

Daphne said...

This is one of my favorite reads this year. I liked seeing Catherine as a person rather than a "monster" and it's nice to think that maybe she found some love in her life after all. No need to enter me in the contest.

Lynn Irwin Stewart said...

I'd love to win a copy! Thanks for the opportunity!

Amy said...

Ooohhh, I'd LOVE to win a copy of this book! Please enter me in the giveaway. I loved The Last Queen and I can't wait to read this one! Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I'd like to enter! gaspers[at]hotmail[dot]com

Sonja Marie (from

N. Gemini Sasson said...

This is an era I know little about, but I'm always looking to expand my horizons and this sounds fascinating. Please enter me!


Love History said...

Enter me too please.

mollycutes at yahoo dot com

C.W. Gortner said...

Thank you for this very lovely review, Julianne. Coming from a French history expert, it is high praise, indeed. I am delighted you enjoyed Catherine's story. Good luck to everyone with the giveaway!

Debbie said...

I'd love to win this book! Thanks for the opportunity!

Debbie: rebbiedeed(at)hotmail(dot)com

Marissa Burt said...

Thanks for the contest and the great review, Julianne!

Jeanine in Canada said...

I've read nothing but great things about this book so I'd love to enter the draw. Thanks so much for doing this!
Jeanine in Canada
jeanine r 3 at g mail dot com

Shannon said...

Thank you for entering me. I've heard so many good things about this book. =)
tiredwkids at live dot com

brokenteepee said...

I would love to read this book.
Thank you
kaiminani at gmail dot com

iHeartABBA said...

Thanks for the chance to win this. I'd so love to read it.

iheartabba at gmail dot com

Janice Murphy Lorenz said...

What an interesting book! It captures my interest because I am of Huguenot descent and am fascinated by all things French. I'm also the Editor of The Cross of Languedoc, a magazine published for its members by The National Huguenot Society, Inc.

Janice Murphy Lorenz