Title: Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France
Author: Leonie Frieda
Fun Fact: During her life, three of Catherine de Medici’s sons were king of France.
Review Summary: I loved the characters and their stories, but the narration was a little dry. It wasn’t overly scholarly or a difficult read, but the plot was sometimes hard to follow and I think this was because the author treated the book like a list of facts instead of a story.
After reading The Dark Queen, a historical fiction novel in which Catherine de Medici is portrayed as the titular dark queen and an evil witch, I was left wanting to know more about the historical basis for the story. In The Dark Queen Catherine is accused of everything from poisoning her rivals to employing beautiful seductresses to control her courtiers to engineering a massacre. This non-fiction account is largely intended to dispel such rumors and show what an impressive woman Catherine de Medici really was. And after reading the book, I’m convinced. She was a little ruthless protecting the throne for her sons, but she was also a very courageous, capable, and mostly well-intentioned woman. Interestingly, many of the horrible things Catherine did in The Dark Queen are based on rumors the existed in Catherine’s time, although most are false or only very loosely based on actual events.
This book was a great look at life in France during the 1500’s – more for the nobility than for the majority of people, but there were still a lot of interesting details given about every day life at the time. Everything from medicine to fashions were touched upon in little asides, which I never found too distracting from the narrative. An incredible amount happened over the course of the book (taking place from ~1530-1590), enough so that I was often left wanting more. During this time period, French religious civil wars were insanely common place and familial rivalries were always causing drama on the political scene. Catherine comes across as a very impressive person, doing her best to hold France together during difficult times, and many other individuals have fascinating, but barely touched on, stories which I’d love to learn more about.
Unfortunately, it was mostly the exciting events which kept me reading, not the exciting book. The narrative was often dry and bits that I felt I should really care about just didn’t draw me in. It didn’t help that a huge number of individuals and factions were introduced over the course of the book. A family tree and a cast list were provided, but both were hopelessly incomplete compared to the actual number of characters. Some minor annoyances, including dates written day-month-year and the occasional untranslated French phrase didn’t help either. But my biggest complaint would definitely be the lack of emotion. Although not all non-fiction has to be narrative non-fiction and it’s difficult to find primary sources from histories as you go back in time, I don’t think that was the problem here. The author actually did a very good job of mentioning Catherine’s mental state and her motivations, backing those statements with fascinating quotes from Catherine’s letters and contemporary accounts of her life. She just didn’t do a good job of showing instead of telling, as though even Catherine’s emotions were just the next in the list of facts she was presenting.
Despite my disappointment with the execution of this particular biography, I found the events and individuals in this book fascinating and expect to read more books, both fiction and non-fiction, set in this time period in the future. Any recommendations?