Though I was not yet familiar with these princesses of Provence, what a delightful introduction I received in this novel. Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the book is the way in which author Sophie Perinot tenderly reveals the lives of sister queens
Marguerite and Eleanor through their relationship with each other. Perinot employs the use of correspondence between the sisters to cue the reader to a change in point of view and to draw parallel timelines throughout the book. In this way, she also shows us the strong bond that ties these women to each other, despite the great distance and many years that separate them.
This device also helps to reinforce the individual voices of each of the sisters, which in my humble opinion, were not quite strong or distinct enough on their own to keep me from confusing one with the other throughout the story. This is a minor distraction, however, as the heart of the story lies in the natures of these women – intelligent, educated, sophisticated beauties – as their lives unfold on the pages, from daughter, to sister, to wife, to mother, and as leader. As portrayed in THE SISTER QUEENS, each of these women wielded great influence in their respective lands, despite the constraints of the customs of the day. As they say, behind every great man is a woman.
Most appealing to me is the loving relationship the author has drawn between Henry and Eleanor, in which the younger sister is allowed to employ her intelligence and given the opportunity to make significant contributions not only to her husband’s success, but to the betterment of the country he rules. Though both women must come to terms with the realities and limitations of their marriages, Eleanor at least finds some measure of happiness and satisfaction through partnership.
Oppositely, Marguerite’s empty marriage and her long-suffering pursuit of her husband’s affection is heart-rending. Perinot’s portrayal of Louis IX is less than romantic, albeit honest, and Marguerite is cast as a woman so desperate to be valued she curries a dangerous liasion. While fun to read, the detailed sexual encounters between the Queen and her lover seem almost out of place in this novel. The affair is in conflict with Marguerite’s core values, which seems to be much more troublesome for her lover than it is for her. The author’s premise of the affair is indeed plausible given the historical record, and it is certainly fun to entertain. Unfortunately, Marguerite’s character, as she is written in the early chapters, seems to devolve rather than evolve. While some readers will find her sympathetic and her behavior understandable (even laudable), others may find that she grows less appealing as the story progresses, rather than more. This is a risky choice by the author, but certainly opens the door to great book club discussions!
Overall, THE SISTER QUEENS is a rich and detailed account of two of history’s most overlooked royals. Women of strength, substance, and significance, Marguerite and Eleanor are heroines of the best sort – devoted and dutiful, and above all, true to themselves and each other. Sophie Perinot has given us a well-dressed window into the past through which the view is sweeping, vivid, and poignant. Carefully researched and artfully written, this novel is a triumphant debut.