Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Review: Earthly Joys by Philippa Gregory

Title: Earthly Joys
Author: Philippa Gregory
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Touchstone
Published: 2005
Pages: 516

Rating: 7 out 10

Although I normally read books quite quickly, I stretched out my reading of this one over a few days. The vividly portrayed Renaissance England setting, the complex, familiar characters, and the interesting, steady flow of the plot line made me want to stay in this story longer than I usually do with others.

The main character is John Tradescant, a gardener in the time of King James I. While other men entwine themselves in politics and charge eagerly off to war, John is content to nurture seedlings, discover new plants, and watch his beloved trees grow along with his life. John ends up becoming the loyal personal servant of George Villiers, the young and handsome Duke of Buckingham, and the king's favorite. As the years slip by, John sacrifices his family and his life for his master, viewing him at different times as a son, a brother, a friend, and a lover.

I just loved this story! There was so much complexity, so many undercurrents, so many sub-plots. Though I have certainly heard more than a few complaints about the historical accuracy of Philippa Gregory's works, this one in particular, I found this to be a very well written book.

First of all, the way that Gregory writes is just lovely here. She captures everything so perfectly. Some authors write their books with a poetic beauty, some with a touch of appreciated humor, some with drama, some with characters you can't help loving, but Gregory seems to mix a bit of all these together into a writing style that just compels you to keep reading. I had to struggle to put the book down, or not read so quickly as I normally do, because despite wanting to savor this book, I also felt compelled to tear through it in one sitting.

I read a review on the back cover of another of her books that said no one has mastered Renaissance England like Philippa Gregory. I don't know if I would go that far, but she has definitely mastered this setting. I just absolutely love books that fully transport you to another time and place, and this book certainly succeeds with that.

The only parts that I felt a lack of a setting were when John travels the world – to India, Asia, Russia, and France. Surprisingly, there is a very large lack of placement here. After being so sharply introduced to the sights and smells of England, it was a bit startling to suddenly be whisked off to another country – even if a similar one, such as France – and have no descriptions of a setting at all.
In these scenes, the author focuses on John himself, his botany, and other things that are going on in the plot. But the scenery is left a mystery, something that I felt extremely odd, considering how good Gregory is at that.

All of the characters in Earthly Joys are wonderful. John is a simple man, and yet, we see into his thoughts and actions so deeply that he becomes a complex, and essentially a very realistically ordinary, yet interesting man. The relationship between him and his wife was an extremely well written one, and though there was no great love story, Gregory combined fondness, duty, love, resentment, and guilt into a very believable marriage. George Villiers was another of my favorite characters. Or at least, another of the most well written characters – I hated him! Excessively arrogant, reckless, selfish, and – the reader is led to believe – a traitor and a murder.

Something about this book that I was not expecting was how sexual it was. Gregory makes no attempt to hide all of the homosexual alliances, affairs, and romances going on at the time – in fact, she makes good use of them and even has John take a male lover as well.

All of the characters, settings, politics, and events in this book were very well written. Gregory may not be the deepest or most historically accurate writer, but she certainly is an engaging one.