Saturday, 31 July 2010

The Serpent Garden by Judith Merkle

GENRE: historical novel/supernatural

The book opens in Tudor England, where Henry VIII and his Machiavellian counselor Cardinal Wolsey are scheming to put an English heir on the French throne. They are arranging to marry Henry's pretty, frivolous younger sister, Mary, to the aging king of France, and they are succeeding thanks in no small measure to a breathtaking miniature of Mary that has been delivered secretly into the king's hands. Everyone wants to know the identity of the painter who created this small miracle, and speculation is rampant. Because women are not allowed in the painters' guild, no one suspects that the artist is a woman, Susanna Dallet, who has been bitterly disappointed by her cad of a husband, who left her widowed and penniless with only her nearly divine talent for portrait painting to sustain herself. Susanna catches the eye and not-quite-benign protection of the manipulative, scheming, brilliant Wolsey - who is utterly captivated by her wit, her independence, and her uncanny gift for capturing character with the delicate strokes of her tiny brush. Placed in the entourage of the princess-bride as she travels stormy seas to the royal wedding, Susanna unknowingly carries with her to France the key to a secret that will embroil her in the diabolical plots swirling through the French court. But high in the rigging of the princess's silk-bannered ship sits the angel of art, who not only snatches Susanna from danger but rewards her courage and feisty resourcefulness with the love of an intelligent - and devastatingly attractive - hero.


I’ve been reviewing great books lately and I’ve only been giving high ratings to books for a while, but for a change, I decided to review a book I did not like and Merkle’s novel The Serpent Garden definitely did not strike my fancy, I’m afraid. I wanted to read this book because I absolutely adore the Tudor period and because I also love to read about artists, so the summary spoke to me and I thought this was going to be a perfect book for me, something along the lines of historical political (slightly fictional) intrigue. And, sadly, I was really wrong.

This novel has high ratings in general and has received some very positive reviews, but it just did not reach me and I was deeply disappointed with the novel. This book incorporates two elements that I really love: history and supernatural (yes, supernatural, for real!), but while the author is good at writing history, she fails miserably at combining it with supernatural elements. Supernatural just isn’t for Judith Merkle, or perhaps Judith Merkle just isn’t the right author for me.

In the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to the heroine, Susanna Dallet, who sees herself as a happily married woman and who is an extremely talented painter. However, her world shakes terribly when her husband is brought home dead, killed by his mistress’s husband. So, Susanna’s marriage was not so happy after all and now she is left alone, with no money. The only way for her to survive is to paint, but women are not allowed to be master painters. But to survive, one sometimes has to break the law and that’s exactly what Susanna does. But when this leads her to become entangled with the affairs of mighty men and women, Susanna is in big trouble.

Up to this point, I really loved the novel. The historical details were well used and although Susanna is a bit ahead of her time for a woman who claims to be a typical Tudor lady, I did like her character, as she is a fighter. She really is an interesting woman, with a sense of humour, wit and a desire to love and be loved. Many things happen to her, some of them very dangerous, and she gets sucked into royal intrigues. All well, but then the book starts to crumble apart.

First of all, the plot gets a bit messy and slips out of control. I think the author tried to cover too many people’s lives in one book. There were just too many conspirators involved in the intrigue, and that’s never a good thing. Apart from Susanna and actual historical people, I really did not feel connected to other characters. In fact, most of them annoyed me and as much as I tried to like them better, I just could not. Then comes the big thing: the supernatural elements.

I think that when someone is writing a historical novel featuring historical characters and supernatural elements, one has to be very careful and original. I admit, Merkle was original in including the supernatural into the novel, but she handled it badly. She should have just focused on the historical aspect of the story. I mean, that aspect alone seemed strained with too many plot elements, but to add more plot elements in the form of supernatural elements is just too much. To tell you what the supernatural elements are, these creatures appear in the novel: a demon, an angel, several cherubs, two imps, and two archangels. And I have no idea what they are doing in the novel. Apparently, they are involved in the intrigue somehow, but why would angels and demons care about who becomes the heir to the French throne? The world is huge, why would celestial and hellish beings care for that? I mean, seriously. And, frankly, they are presented in a very clumsy, not at all realistic way. When a writer writes about supernatural things, he/she has to make them seem real to the reader, as if they actually existed. With Merkle, the supernatural elements just seemed incredibly forced and their involvement in the plot was unrealistic, meaningless and just plain redundant.

Now, there are people who love the novel, so if I say it’s bad, it’s not necessarily bad. But as a lover of both historical and supernatural fiction, I was very disappointed on both accounts. I love angels, but those were not angels, and if demons really act that way, then I don’t know why we should be afraid of hell. I, personally, wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone, but if you are interested, borrow it from a library first to make sure. I bought it and it was not money well spent. I donated the book to a library in the end.

I hope that other people can enjoy the novel if they decide to read it.



Jan von Harz said...

I love your honest opinion and the reasons you had for not liking this book. Great review.

Blodeuedd said...

Great of you to read it anyway. But yes doesn't strike me as something I want to read

The Insouciant Sophisticate said...

Thanks for the review! I think it can be heard to review books we don't like but it's your blog and you should share your honest opinion about everything. You explained exactly why you didn't like it and it sounds like something I'd have trouble with too. It's already hard for me to keep track of who's who in Tudor novels since everybody has the same few names and then sometimes they're called by their name and sometimes by the title so to add in supernatural creatures would be just too much for me. (Sorry for the long comment!)

Julie P said...

Thanks for the honest review!

Becky said...

Hi Irena!
I just wanted to let you know that I've given you the Prolific Blogger Award on my blog. :)

(I also mailed the book out to you today as well! Happy reading!)

Irena @ This Miss Loves to Read said...

Thank you all for your comments!

@Bookworm: Yeah, I know, but I wanted to show I don't give only 4 or 5 stars. That's the reason I posted a 2-star review of a book I read some time ago. Plus, it's been in me for a while.;) Still, I'm glad you like the review and I don't mind long comments.

@Becky: *HUG*