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Book Commentary/Review – The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner September 15, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, C.W. Gortner, historical fiction, literary commentary, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.
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With The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, author C.W Gortner offers us a well-crafted historical fiction autobiography of a woman who is generally demonized as a ruthless actor in French royal politics, particularly with respect to conflicts between newly emerging French Protestants and long-established Catholics. The so-called St. Bartholomew Day massacre is often considered the epitome of this behavior, a massacre of protestants attributed to King Charles but possibly instigated and approved by Catherine de Medici. History may find fault with Catherine. Gortner takes the view that Catherine was only trying to eliminate blatantly treasonous Huguenots—Charles and others acting on Charles’ behalf independently took it too far. Gortner depicts Catherine as a person trapped between fanatics, trying to bridge a gap that could not be bridged. This is well dramatized in Gortner’s novel, and could offer pause for thought concerning some of today’s issues of faith. What is the answer when trying to establish peace among religious fanatics? Is there hope of finding a middle ground? And can a search for that middle ground be incredibly dangerous?

The book is told in a first-person/diary-journal style. “Confessions” is probably a more alluring title, but “explanations” or “justifications” would be more accurate. The story covers most of her life, from when she was ten years old to her death. Gortner handles the massive time scope adeptly, creating a long, workable dramatic arc that keeps the pages turning. As the story develops, Catherine de Medici’s chief adversary is the Guise family, fanatic Catholics, favoring ruthless, genocidal persecutions of the French Protestants, the Huguenots. This conflict offers the main issue for the dramatic arc that drives the story. Catherine rejects the Guises’ approach, and schemes from her position at the edge of power, but with little granted authority, to take a more moderate approach to the religious clash. The resolution of that conflict, which takes place the same year as her death, resolves the key dramatic question of Guises versus Catherine and her family. Of course, during the vast time line of the story, subplots and maneuverings of various sorts, with sudden twists and turns, dance around this long dramatic arc. By having the long arc to focus the story, the entire novel holds together as an effective entertainment, informative and intriguing.

Gortner’s craft is evident from the first pages. Whether one wants to consider the historical Catherine a villain, or a hero, or something in between, Gortner knows well the maxim that every character is the hero of his or her own story, whether the character is a hero or a villain. He brings us into sympathy with the ten year old Catherine immediately as she is thrown into a convent of unsympathetic nuns, and is then humiliated for no other reason than the fact she is part of the Medici family. Readers will find themselves feeling sympathy for Catherine, and anger at those who have treated her so unjustly. This continues when she is shuffled off to France to marry an insensitive French prince who treats her not much better than an animal obtained as breeding stock. He humiliates her by giving prominence to a mistress nearly old enough to be Catherine’s mother. Catherine becomes an underdog. We root for her to overcome the adversity that has been foisted upon her. So when she wins her battles, we rejoice. Gortner’s craft in drawing us into her battles is the key to the success of this book.

The St. Bartholomew Day massacre is one of the most controversial events of Catherine de Medicis’s life. Gortner continues his presentation of a sympathetic Catherine, forced by circumstances and the duplicitous behavior of those around her into making difficult choices. The choices appear to be as moderate and as temperate as she can make them—the massacre occurs when those choices evolve into terrible events not planned by Catherine.

The Confession of Catherine de Medici is historical fiction the way it is supposed to be—steeped in solid research, with a pinch of educated speculation. Gortner offers a comprehensive Afterword to identify where he has speculated, and to tie up loose historical ends. Connoisseurs of the genre will enjoy this book.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici