Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Sixth Wife as chick-lit protagonist

Suzannah Dunn's The Sixth Wife was an odd, tiresome and ultimately disappointing look at the last year-and-a-half of Katherine Parr's life. The title is a misnomer, as the book only mentions in passing her marriage to King Henry VIII and focuses exclusively on her relationship with Thomas Seymour.

Dunn chose to tell Kate's story through the eyes of her best friend, Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. That approach could have been an intriguing one, as the historical Catherine occupied her own niche in the grand drama of the Tudors. The daughter of Maria de Salinas of Spain (the faithful friend of Katherine of Aragon) the duchess became a prominent Protestant and the wife of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had previously been wed to Mary Tudor, sister to the king.

However, Dunn's Catherine was an unlikeable character whose behavior became more and more preposterous as the novel progressed.

***Warning: Spoilers follow.***

For the first one-third of the story, Dunn portrayed Catherine as disliking Thomas Seymour, convinced her friend made a terrible mistake by marrying him. Then the lovable rogue Thomas plants a quick, unwanted kiss on the back of her neck. Catherine falls instantly into lust, turning into a brainless, besotted, bodice-ripper heroine seduced by sweet words and clandestine sex. For a woman who described herself as self-possessed and unafraid to say what she thought, this was an unbelievable character shift. Catherine continued to protest her undying friendship and admiration for Kate while joyfully schtupping her husband (which just made me want to wring her nasty little neck).

Dunn skimmed over the most interesting parts of the story: Thomas's inappropriate relationship with the teenage Princess Elizabeth, and his subsequent trial and execution for treason. The final third of the book was somewhat touching, with Catherine repenting of her affair with Thomas as Kate succumbed to childbed fever. By then, however, I was impatiently skimming the novel, just wanting it to end so I could read something better.

Dunn turned her characters into cardboard cutouts, especially Kate Parr, who despite her portrayal through the eyes of her supposed best friend, never stepped full blooded from the pages of history, but remained a one-dimensional enigma.

I read historical novels partly to become immersed in the past, but Dunn's annoying use of modern idiom kept pulling me right back into the 21st Century. (The worst offense: Catherine referring to Edward VI, the boy king, as "little Eddie." Groan.) The author's writing style was clunky and overly simplistic, with laughable, tin-eared dialogue. The impression her novel gave was of bad chick lit, with historical personages incongruously shoved into it. Without the names Katherine Parr, Thomas Seymour and Princess Elizabeth, this could have been any tedious piece of romantic fluff.

Katherine Parr - queen, intellectual and author - deserves better than this. My grade: D.


Daphne said...

I think I will stay far away from this one!

Ms Alex (Daemonwolf Books) said...

I was put off Dunn by the many reviews I read for Queen Of Subtleties that started with stuff like 'Now that I have stopped laughing...' or 'This abomination...' Doesn't look like she has learnt any lessons. Shame, really.