by Jane Feather, historical (2002)
Bantam, $6.50, ISBN 0-553-58187-2
The Widow's Kiss makes me depressed. No, no, it's not an atrocious book, far from it. But it's so well-written that this story of female victimization sugarcoated by sex and love makes me feel really, really down in the dumps.
Set in the 1500s during the reign of King Henry, this story concerns a four-times widowed Guinevere Mallory. Readers who want helpless, weeping damsels will really hate this Guinevere. I like her already. Guinevere is married to really nasty, abusive husbands, and her role in the death of the fourth hubby, or rather, her innocence is debatable, really.
The wily widow however has contracts drawn in such a way that after her bereavements, she gets to keep the lands and properties of her husbands. She is therefore a wealthy widow. Needless to say, the king, the Lord Privy Seal, and other sharks are circling around her in anticipation of a feeding frenzy.
One of these sharks is Hugh of Beucaire, who is so sure that some of her lands are rightfully his, I mean, his son's, so he will get under the widow's mourning weeds and find ways to crucify her. Readers looking for understanding, misguided heroes who take one look at the heroine and reverse their opinions right away will hate Hugh too. I give him a chance, mind you, until the very last few chapters, but Hugh just doesn't get the plot. Stupidity motivated by greed and avarice is just no excuse for anything. And trust me, Hugh may come off as an arrogant lord, but in the end, his blind trust in the King and the Lord Privy Seal, motivated by his own misogyny and avarice, damns him more than anything he can do to the heroine in my eyes.
Guinevere is an amazing woman, and she plays this chess game of intrigue like a virtuoso. She is no misunderstood weepie who clings to the hero as she blabs out some story of bad daddies, sick mommas, and sicker kiddies. She makes no apologies for her actions, and she will damn well fight for what she deems as hers and her children's.
This story is so involved in the chess game that it forgets all about romance. A wild kiss, motivated by impulse and attraction to a wily enemy, and superficial love scenes do not make a satisfactory romance, not when the ass of a hero still tries to find ways to justify his attempts to leave Guinevere out to hang.
In the end, Guinevere has no chance, none at all. She is a woman in a time when she has already way more power and wealth for her own good. In the way, she is forced to accept Hugh's subjugation, and no amount of cursory but pretty words from Hugh at the last few pages before the epilogue can disguise that. The queen has been forced into a corner by the king, the knight, and the bishop, and while the game may not be over yet, for the queen it's the end game. Check mate.
How sad, really.
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