Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Book Reviews: Cashelmara and Penmarric by Susan Howatch

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch
Pages: 720
Released:  1974
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wow. Ok, so, on one level this book is set in the 1800s through 1900s and follows the de Salis family through three generations in both England and the United States. But, all of these characters and the events of their lives are a retelling of the lives of Edward I, Edward II, and Edward III. The surface level story is engaging, but what made me love this book was the historical parallel and seeing how Susan Howatch retold history in a way that created a full and original story but still stayed true to the events and characters of history.

Some scenes are searingly evocative (god, that starvation scene), but what really stood out to me were the characters. I felt for them, raged with them, despaired with them, and triumphed with them.  Historical events were reimagined in convincing and, while different, very similar ways. It almost felt like reincarnation where the events of the past are destined to replay themselves again and again.

This is a long book. The chapters are huge. Narration is first person, but the book is broken up into multiple sections and each section is narrated by a different character. The writing is, on the surface, just ok. But. I can't put my finger on exactly when or how, but all of a sudden I went from "This is nice and I'm interested in reading more" to "OHMYGOSH I'M INVESTED!" It's a slower build, but it does build into an all-encompassing powerhouse. Highly recommended.

Penmarric by Susan Howatch

Pages: 702
Released:  1971
Received: Library, own
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Most of everything I said about Cashelmara can be said about Penmarric. The writing is rich, the characters are real, and the parallels between the surface story and the history it retells are fascinating individually and together. Chapters again are large and narration again switches from one character to another.

Instead of the 1300s, the historical parallel here is Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their "devil's brood," including Richard the Lionheart and the evil King John. And, perhaps that was part of the problem for me. I entered this book with far more investment and knowledge of the historical time period than I did with Cashelmara. The characters here felt close to their historical counterparts, but less seamless. Janna as Eleanor was close, but not quite Eleanor. The nod to the Anarchy fell flat, as inheriting an estate after legal disputes just doesn't have the same level of flair and gravitas as fighting a civil war that tore apart England for over a decade has. Philip's obsession with his tin mines, while an interesting parallel, felt like a bit of a stretch from Richard's famous crusades. Events were also not quite as lockstep with history.

That said, I waver, because as much as I can't deny a sense of disappointment with all that, I still adored the book. As much as I might have felt disappointed with tin mines replacing crusades, I spent so much time pondering the historical nuances in the context of Susan Howatch's story that I gained an even greater appreciation for and understanding of those events in history. Her portrayal of John is, shockingly, one of the best and most humanizing portrayals of him I've ever read. He certainly wasn't likable, but finally he was no longer the two dimensional villain history usually portrays him to be (though Mark as Henry II felt far too villainous and without nuance or redeeming features).

So, again, it may not be quite right, but it did make me think about the real historical events and people with a greater depth. Even with my quibbles, I still thoroughly enjoyed Penmarric and highly recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Penmarric when I read it years ago and I still loved it when I decided to re-read it recently. I agree with you about the portrayal of John - she made him a much more complex and sympathetic character than you would expect. My old copies of Cashelmara and Howatch's other big historical saga, The Wheel of Fortune, are slowly moving up the TBR for a re-read too.


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