Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by CW Gortner

The truth is, none of us are innocent. We all have sins to confess.

So reveals Catherine de Medici in this brilliantly imagined novel about one of history’s most powerful and controversial women. To some she was the ruthless queen who led France into an era of savage violence. To others she was the passionate savior of the French monarchy. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner brings Catherine to life in her own voice, allowing us to enter into the intimate world of a woman whose determination to protect her family’s throne and realm plunged her into a lethal struggle for power.

 The last legitimate descendant of the illustrious Medici line, Catherine suffers the expulsion of her family from her native Florence and narrowly escapes death at the hands of an enraged mob. While still a teenager, she is betrothed to Henri, son of François I of France, and sent from Italy to an unfamiliar realm where she is overshadowed and humiliated by her husband’s lifelong mistress. Ever resilient, Catherine strives to create a role for herself through her patronage of the famous clairvoyant Nostradamus and her own innate gift as a seer. But in her fortieth year, Catherine is widowed, left alone with six young children as regent of a kingdom torn apart by religious discord and the ambitions of a treacherous nobility.

Relying on her tenacity, wit, and uncanny gift for compromise, Catherine seizes power, intent on securing the throne for her sons. She allies herself with the enigmatic Protestant leader Coligny, with whom she shares an intimate secret, and implacably carves a path toward peace, unaware that her own dark fate looms beforeher—a fate that, if she is to save France, will demand the sacrifice of her ideals, her reputation, and the passion of her embattled heart.

From the fairy-tale châteaux of the Loire Valley to the battlefields of the wars of religion to the mob-filled streets of Paris, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is the extraordinary untold journey of one of the most maligned and misunderstood women ever to be queen.

There are certain figures from history whose lasting legacy seems to be a bad reputation in some way, usually deservedly so. If a novelist chooses to write about them it can be difficult for them to walk the fine line between writing the history or trying to rehabilitate their reputation or to be apologist.

CW Gortner has chosen to write about Catherine de Medici, a woman known through history as a someone who would do whatever she could to maintain her grip on power, including meddling in the dark arts, poisoning her enemies, inciting religious disharmony and so much more. In doing so, he tries to bring a balance to the stories we think we know about Catherine and presents her as a wife and mother trying to do everything she can to maintain her family's grip on power, a stranger in a foreign land, a woman whose husband loves another. For the most part, Gortner manages to tell this woman's story without straying too far into sentimentality or being too apologetic.

Catherine is a member of the de Medici family, but they are no longer the all powerful family they once were. Spirited away from a dangerous situation at home, Catherine is married off to a French Prince - Henri. He is however destined to become King Henri II.  This Catherine is innocent, full of hope that she may find love and fulfilment within her marriage, but she is also determined and after all a Medici. Packed in her trousseau - a vial of poison. Her husband has, however, already given his love to another - the beautiful and powerful Diane de Poitiers, and the French Court does not like the young Catherine. Not only is she lonely in her marriage, but she is dealing with new customs she must learn to fit in in the French Court, but even if she does she will always be seen as an outsider.

Diane is not content with taking Catherine's husband's affections, she also wants to usurp her role at court, to find a place in Catherine's children affection, and her house! I remember reading years ago that Diane de Poitiers was a forebear of Princess Diana. If ever there was another case of 'there were three people in this marriage' then this would be it!
As Catherine's hopes of happiness fade, she eventually finds power the one way that she can - through her children, but even then there are obstacles. Widowed at 40, she becomes regent for her sons, and finds herself part of a struggle for power between the de Guise family and the ruling family, and so she must make the hard decisions to protect her children's legacy. At the same time, there is religious upheaval and rebellion.

The narrator is Catherine herself, looking back over her life from the relative distance of old age. She shares with us her hopes and dreams, her loves,  her disappointments, the meetings with influential people of the age including Nostradamus, and yes, her regrets.

Whilst this wasn't quite a warts and all look at the life of Catherine de Medici, the author certainly didn't gloss over the terrible consequences of the decisions that were made, whether they were the intended consequences or not.

As much as I liked CW Gortners previous book The Last Queen, this was a step up. Now I am eager to read his next book on Isabel of Castile. I am expecting a very readable and enjoyable look at another fascinating female character from history.

This review is part of the blog tour for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici being run by Historical Fiction Virtual Blog Tours. You can follow the blog tour by visiting the tour schedule here. Also, if you head over to Historical Tapestry, I have cross-posted this review, but there is also a chance to win a copy of the paperback release of the book.


  1. you have great book selections and there are lots of them that I want to read after reading your reviews thanks fro sharing

  2. Excellent review! Haven't read this yet, but I love the fact that Gortner is writing about those female historical figures that are very controversial.

  3. Fantastic review! I have long wanted to read a book about Catherine, and think that this one would fit the bill nicely. I am also glad that Gortner isn't an apologist as well. Thanks for sharing your insight on the book with us!

  4. I really enjoyed this one. It's the first of his I've read. I have The Last Queen on my ipod but haven't listened to it yet. I need to get to that one and I'm definitely looking forward to the one about Isabel of Castile too.