Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: The Sister Queens, by Sophie Perinot



Will Shortz’s job, as the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle, is to ensure that his readers are provided an intriguing list of clues for every entry, across and down. He draws little boxes in a grid, arranges every letter just so. And then publishes the most challenging one of the week in the Thursday edition of the Times.

Writing crosswords is hardly a task that will result in compliments from the reader, for Shortz can expect only three possible outcomes:

If he screws it up, the readers will say:

1. This crossword is too easy. It’s stupid. –OR-
2. This crossword is impossible. It’s stupid.

Tragically for Shortz and his contributors, when done properly, the reader’s reaction is not thanks or appreciation, but rather,

3. I am so damned good at crosswords!

After having finished Sophie Perinot’s The Sister Queens, I can confidently assert:

I am so damned good at reading historical fiction.

Every book is puzzle, and the author’s job is to provide the clues, the boxes, the letters. Then let the reader experience the joy of filling it in. It’s a sign of the sophistication of Perinot’s approach that she understands this relationship between author and reader, and leads just far enough — before demurely retreating and letting the reader’s imagination do the rest.

There’s a moment early in the story when Marguerite is pricked by her sister Eleanor, who is pinning a broach to her (a gift from Marguerite’s intended, Louis IX). Marguerite resolves not to mention the small wound to the family surrounding her, as she is the only one privy to the flash in her sister Eleanor’s eyes, and knows it was done intentionally.

I can’t express how masterfully Perinot has captured the relationship that drives this novel in that one moment. She has set the stage in action, in deed. And I, the reader, have discovered it like a pearl in an oyster, careless to the fact that Perinot was diving under moonlight the night before to set the mollusk exactly where I would find it, and between gnarled shells, carefully inserted a cultured pearl of rare beauty.

This is not an author lecturing the reader. How many lesser writers have I read (some with millions of books sold) who would have ham-handed a sentence into the book, something along the lines of: “Eleanor had always been envious of her older sister.”? After all, it seems like such an innocuous thing to say – and true! – and surely, as an author, one longs for the comfort of knowing that the reader won’t fail to understand the relationship that you are trying so desperately to convey through words.

But there’s a courage to writing well. A trust. I liken it to those moments when one of my toddling children is doing something particularly cringe-inducing — balancing an overfull glass of milk over carpeting, slamming the car door with fingers particularly close to the strike, scurrying up some playground equipment designed for children far more dexterous than their wavering balance. As a good parent, I have to let my children try — and sometimes fail — because it is only down the road of risk that maturity comes.

And The Sister Queens is a work of obvious artistic maturity. I can only hope that Perinot has crafted this tale with the punctilious precision of New York Times crossword. If she merely intuited it, because of a natural aptitude for understanding character, action, voice, I’m afraid I’m so envious that I’ll have to hunt her down with intentions as black as Blanche (‘the dragon’, Louis IX’s overbearing mother), and frankly, I don’t care to be the subject of an interstate manhunt, nor spoil my chance to read Perinot’s next book.

This maturity informs another aspect of the book that I found deftly handled. In transporting me back to the 13th century, Perinot allows modern sensibilities to fall away, and lets the truth of the time drive her sisters’ attitudes and ambitions. She doesn’t condescend to them by forcing an anachronistic desire to be the ‘equal’ of any king, these aren’t post-2000 Disney princesses. She inserts no speeches hinting at nascent feminism. Perinot finds her connection in a way that is human — not political — treating the protagonists with respect for who they were. Perinot honors her characters by celebrating them in a way I suspect the real sisters of Savoy would have understood.

There are of course nits in a work as sprawling as The Sister Queens. I wish Perinot’s notes on the historicity of the novel had come as introduction instead of afterword; as I read, I think I could have more thoroughly fallen into her authorial arms if I had trusted more the boundaries of fact and fiction. As it was, a little bird perched on my shoulder, occasionally asking, Wait a minute? How much of this is actually real?

At times, too, Perinot loses narrative focus, and her story drifts until she can reach a historical guidepost that allows her to pick up a new conflict. These episodes are probably unavoidable in a work tied to actual lives; they were never serious enough that I put the book down. Her decision to write in first person left me sometimes longing for the greater descriptive freedom that comes with third; I would have like to have seen in more detail some of the grand courts, churches and battles; hardly possible in the intimate style of narrative she chose. A titillating encounter seems to be parachuted in every seventy pages or so with the regularity of a monthly visitor (as to whether this is due to the sensibilities of the author, or the intended market, I suspect the latter). Last, this book screams ‘targeted toward women’, and as a paunchy, middle-aged man, I sometimes had that excruciating discomfort that can only be experienced by being the only male at a baby shower. The cover art didn’t inspire me to read this in public view.

But these hardly rise to a level that impacted my enjoyment of the novel. All in all, a fascinating, enjoyable read. I don’t think I can offer any higher compliment than the following three words, having now turned the last page on Marguerite and Eleanor, The Sister Queens:

I miss them.


  1. Glad you got past the cover (which I didn't pick and had me worried for just this reason from the moment I saw it)! Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough and wonderful review.

  2. Well drat, so I'm not a brilliant crossword solver? Okay fine, but like you, I'm a damned good reader and you've sold me on The Sister Queens. have a lovely day -Kelly

    (5th attempt at the dreaded captcha -see, I'm dedicated!)