Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Figures in Silk by Vanora Bennett — 496 pgs

Book CoverIsabel and Jane are sisters of very different types. Beautiful Jane is indolent, idle and flirtatious, and holds her widowed father, an esteemed silk merchant, in the palm of her hand. Isabel is serious, independent and hardworking, always at odds with her father and hopeful of the future to come. But when her father loses standing in the eyes of the local guild, he decides to marry off both girls to prosperous families in order to raise public opinion of himself and his business. This means that Jane will wed a man who doesn’t love her and who is reproachful of everything she does, while Isabel will marry into the house of Claver, a virtuous and noble family of silk workers. Though neither of the girls love their husbands, Isabel begins to feel a sort of affection toward the young man she marries and is devastated when he’s killed while defending the city from an attack to overthrow King Edward. When Isabel decides to apprentice herself to her mother-in-law for ten years to avoid the scandal her husband left behind and Jane annuls her marriage to become the mistress of the King, the sisters are set apart. But as Isabel works away her ten years, she falls in love with a mysterious and unavailable man and must be satisfied with the random trysts that he and she agree to. When she discovers that her lover is actually the Duke of Gloucester, brother of the king and possible usurper of the throne, the danger she uncovers is almost too much for her to handle. Are the rumors of her beloved Richard really true? This tale of the War of the Roses as seen through the traitorous eyes of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and his humble and naive lover is full to the brim with cunning, treachery, and a very unlikely romance between a virtuous woman and a man who remains one of the most notorious characters in all of history.

When I discovered this book would be our book club choice for the month of February, I was rather excited because not only am I an avid lover of historical fiction, but I knew I would soon be touring another book by Vanora Bennett, called The Queen’s Lover, and I thought this would be an excellent way for me to get a sample of what was to come. It wasn’t until about a third of the way through that I realized the book’s topic was the War of the Roses, and when I discovered that I would soon be neck deep in this particular story again, I was rather pleased because, though there are many books out there on this subject, I always relish the opportunity to see the story portrayed from another viewpoint.

I have to say this book and I didn’t get off to a great start together. I’m not sure if was because the first sections were mostly about scene setting and character introduction, but for the first hundred pages or so, I found myself getting easily distracted and almost bored. For some reason, the characters lacked the piquancy that I relish in most of the historical fiction I read, and I found that both girls, especially Isabel, were just too bland for me to get invested in. I also had a problem with the descriptions of the silk work. Often, I find that fiction which delves deeply into some kind of craft is wonderful in a way I can’t describe, because it elucidates and also captures my interest in its minute details. This was not the case here, because although I felt that Bennett really knew her stuff in regards to silk work, she was unable to translate the excitement and flavor of the craft to her readers. I have to admit that I glossed over a lot of these sections because they just didn’t interest me. I was beginning to think this book would be a total loss, until I got to the second section and things began to pick up dramatically.

Due to the activism of the local community of silk workers, the widowed Isabel and others like her have a degree of independence and autonomy that is almost unheard of during this point in history. It’s mentioned several times in the text that women like Isabel’s mother-in-law petitioned and argued for the rights of these women to run their own businesses and to be free from the impingement of men that may have held them back. In essence, this is the reason Isabel was able to make a name and a fortune for herself through her silk work, and the reason that her petition to the king for the silk workers to begin making their own exotic silks was granted. The secret operation of building up this business had to be kept very quiet in order for the foreign contingent of importers in England not to be angered. As Isabel begins her secret work, she once again finds herself at odds due to her very loose relationship with a man she presumes to be a soldier, but who is a very different animal altogether.

The relationship between Isabel and the man she knows as Dickon is one that’s inflamed by passion and separated by formalities. Dickon is Isabel’s reason for hope and her lover for a very long period of time. When she discovers his true identity and hears the rumors associated with him, her life shatters into shards of self deception and mistrust. Her relationship with Dickon and likewise her sister’s with the king puts the two of them in a hotbed of danger and uncertainty, and though Isabel goes to great lengths to deceive herself of Dickon’s true nature, the proof of his madness and treachery increases on a scale that can’t be denied. When he begins to enlist Isabel’s help in his dangerous plans and uses her confidences to thwart those who oppose him, Isabel is angered and heartbroken. In reality, Isabel is used by both sides in this battle, and though she doesn’t know it, her first and final betrayal of Dickon will be the loose end that completely unravels him.

Though I didn’t really enjoy the beginning, and the conclusion left me a bit tepid, the majority of the story was entrancing to say the least. To see the War of The Roses from the point of view of the villain was more than intriguing to me, and the fact that Dickon could fool not only the clever Isabel, but this reader, who already knew the outcome of this story, was an achievement in itself. If historical fiction is a genre you appreciate, I would recommend this book to you, though perhaps like me, it might take awhile for the story to really ramp up for you.

19 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Wonderful review - sounds very intriguing. I would have gone on about how could Isabel be so blind, but then when you said Dickon fooled you too, even knowing the outcome of the story, I reconsidered! :--)

nomadreader said...

I haven't read much historical fiction about the War of the Roses, but I agree the point of view of a villain is quite intriguing. I'll look forward to your thoughts on the other book you'll be reading by this author!

Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I, too, love historical fiction and enjoy when some form of craft is included in the description and scenes. How unfortunate, though, that the main character seemed a bit bland! I'm considering reading this at some point either way, but will definitely bear in mind your always fabulous and insightful review! Slow to start is tough - I'm glad you mentioned that the first hundred pages are uneventful. I might have given up on it!

Audra said...

Thanks for the honest review -- I'm in the midst of a historical that has me feeling v cold toward the main characters despite the exciting setting and plot. Particularly sad as I'm due to review the sequel in a few weeks!

bermudaonion said...

You know how you felt at the beginning of the book? That's usually how I feel when I read historical fiction and I can't figure out why, since so many of my friends love it.

Geosi Reads said...

I am wondering if this story is for me but do you suggest I go ahead and read it since I enjoy historical fiction a lot?

Suko said...

Terrific review! I often enjoy historical fiction but I'm not sure if this book is for me.

Jenny said...

I know nothing about the war of the roses or that time period so I never find myself that interested in books set then either... the storyline sounded a lot like Shanghai Girls to me (just different culture and time period, LOL) so you might like that one. I know what you mean about liking when authors describe a certain craft but they have to be careful because it can definitely be not interesting if not done well!

Jenners said...

I'm not a really big historical fiction fan so I think I'll take a pass on this one.

Mrs. Q: Book Addict said...

This one sounds like one I would enjoy. Thanks for the warning that it started off slow, sometimes that frustrates me...but sometimes it's necessary to get through those pages.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I am not familiar with this one at all. Yours is the first review, and as always; my thanks.

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I had such high hopes for this as I began to read the initial description but hard to get into and a tepid ending, added to the fact that this is already 500 pages makes it seem rather daunting. I love reading the same thing from multiple perspectives as well. It's really valuable with something like the War of the Roses because the history there is so confusing to begin with.

TheBookGirl said...

I am not sure whether to put this one on my list or not; I love historical fiction and I share your enthusiasm for works that expound on a craft or profession that I don't know much about, but I'm afraid from your description that I might not have as much patience with the book as you did to get to the good stuff, lol.

On the other hand, I have not read much about The War of the Roses, and would like to...have to think about this some more :)

Amy said...

I'm a realtive neophyte in the historical fiction genre so I'm not sure I would have managed 100 pages if I was bored but the story sounds intriguing. I feel for Jane and Isabel, sheesh it was difficult for women at a time when they were considered property. They make so many sacrifices. By the end, the story sounds very emotionally draining!

I'd like to see what your thoughts are about The Queen's Lover and how Vanora Bennett handles that story. Despite how interesting Figures in Silk is, you mentioned some areas you glossed over and then there's the first 100 pages...so I'm not sure if I want to read this.
But I very much enjoyed your review!

Aarti said...

Oh, I wish I knew you had this and were reading it- I have it on my shelf as well, sitting unread. I must have forgotten that it took place during the War of the Roses, too, and that Richard III is a character in it! I'm not proud of this, but I don't know if I want to read a book in which Richard becomes a villain- I fell in love with him in The Sunne in Splendour and just can't imagine him being otherwise!

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I don't usually read historical fiction, but this sounds very interesting--particularly the appearance of the Duke of Gloucester. I know almost nothing about English history, so I'd love to do a little research before diving into something like this. Great review.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This is why I'm reluctant to abandon books - it sounds like FIGURES IN SILK picked up for you (for a while, anyway).

However, your insightful review (and tip that it slows down toward the end as well), coupled with the size of this chunkster, makes me think I'll give this one a pass.

Swapna said...

Great review. I've had my eye on this one for awhile, so it's good to know I should power through the beginning, even if it's not really captivating me.

Darlene said...

Hey, I love what you've done with the blog. I thought I was in the wrong place at first. lol.

I do have this book on my shelf but now I'm a bit leary about reading it since I didn't love The Queen's Lover. Let's just say I'm not in a huge hurry right now.

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