An entertaining and involving version of a well-known story. 4/5 stars.
The blurb: Two sisters competing for the greatest prize: The love of a king
When Mary Boleyn comes to court as an innocent girl of fourteen, she catches the eye of Henry VIII. Dazzled, Mary falls in love with both her golden prince and her growing role as unofficial queen. However, she soon realises just how much she is a pawn in her family’s ambitious plots as the king’s interest begins to wane and she is forced to step aside for her best friend and rival: her sister, Anne. Then Mary knows that she must defy her family and her king and take fate into her own hands.
Back in October 2015 I read and reviewed The Other Queen, which was ok, but I was expecting more from Phillipa Gregory. However, as the writing was good and my real issue was with Mary Queen of Scots and the other characters, I was keen to give Gregory’s works another go.
And I’m glad I did. The Other Boleyn Girl was exactly what I was expecting and it was very good. The historical facts of the rise and fall of the Boleyns in the court of Henry VIII are so dramatic and scandalous they have provided rich fodder for various authors, including Hilary Mantell and her two Booker-prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (excellent, by the way). But while Mantell shows us the story from the viewpoint of Thomas Cromwell, Gregory gives us the experience of Mary Boleyn, the first of the Boleyn girls to be handed over to Henry VIII by a ruthless clan in search of increasing levels of royal favour.
The choice of Mary as a channel for the more well-known story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII is excellent because, unlike her shrewd and selfish sister, the younger Boleyn girl is likeable. Also, Mary’s story has a relatively happy ending, something which softens the more horrific and depressing parts of the tale. Although, that said, choosing a female viewpoint (as opposed to Mantell’s choice of Cromwell) means we are given close-up views of the more terrifying aspects of childbirth and pregnancy in the early sixteenth century. There are a few scenes which certainly aren’t for the squeamish.
I was also impressed with Gregory’s complex portrayal of Anne Boleyn which refuses to paint her as simply a self-serving, nasty piece of work who entirely was to blame for her own downfall. Gregory’s Anne is also a victim; a young woman forced to live her life continually responding to the whims of powerful men. And if you had no sympathy for her before her marriage to Henry, it’ll come soon after.
Be warned: this is a long book. My edition clocked in at over 520 pages and the type was very small. If you are on a deadline to get a number of books read, perhaps keep this for a quieter week. But please don’t let the length put you off: it is to Gregory’s credit that she held my interest over the entire length of this book, even though I knew the details of the story already.
Overall: if you haven’t read any of Gregory’s books, this would be a good place to start. Just make sure you have time to commit to such a lengthy read.
Have you read The Other Boleyn Girl? Seen the film? Are you a fan of Gregory’s books? Any recommendations for what I should try next? Let me know!