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While I was aware that Mavis Cheek is a popular English chick lit author, I hadn't thought her interesting enough for me to try her work, until now.
I picked up this book in my local library after seeing a portrait of Anne of Cleves looking demurely at me from the spine. Being interested in historical fiction, I thought I might enjoy this. Fortunately I also like well-written humorous chick lit, as this is the category most of the book belongs to. I will explain.
An intelligent wife, who considers herself plain looking, and has played second fiddle to her snobbish husband, suddenly finds herself a widow after an accident.
The young adult daughter, a Daddy's girl, cringes to think of her mother doing anything out of the character that they have become used to. As I have a young adult daughter myself, the funny side of this really hit home.
Deceased Daddy has left behind an unfinished history of Hurcott Ducis, the village that they live in, that Mum decides to continue. During her research, she learns much about Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife of Henry VIII, and discovers likenesses in their characters. This drives her on to see if popular history has understood Anne as well as it might, and brings her into conflict with a tourist guide who considers herself an expert on the Tudor Court.
Readers will have to get deep into the book before getting to the parts going into detail about the Tudors, but I consider that I was well entertained along the way, by the mostly light-hearted chick lit style storyline.
Small parts of the historical detail in the second half of the book read like extracts from a guidebook. I was interested in reading it, but if this really puts you off, you could skip these.
The most interesting as well as humorous parts for me were when the author imagines that the portraits, in exhibitions that she visits in Paris and London, talk to each other. This sounds far-fetched as I am trying to convey the humour in this review, but the skill of the author made it seem entirely credible to me, as I was reading.
By the end of the book I would expect readers to admire both Anne of Cleves and the modern wife and mother who has the starring role in this novel.
== Outstanding Quotes ==
The author provides readers with a list of books that have helped her in her research at the back of her book, together with other acknowledgements of assistance.
At the front of the book there are pertinent quotes two of which stood out for me.
The first is from the early 20th century, which sums up why the main character isn't as devastated as others think she should be. "If your married your husband bosses you, and if you aren't married people call you an Old Maid. Oh! To be a widow . . . ."
The other is the recorded words of Henry VIII on the morning of his marriage to Anne of Cleves. "My Lord, if it were not to satisfy the world, and my realm, I would not do what I do this day for none earthly thing."
This novel sees a modern widow continuing her husband's historical research, and is a well-written, funny comparison of the life of a modern wife to that of the Tudor Queen Anne of Cleves.
The historian, and author of academic and historical fiction books, Alison Weir, endorses the historical accuracy of the Tudor period, as explained by Mavis Cheek, the chick lit author of Amenable Women.
There are great light hearted looks at differing characters from the present day and the Tudor Court, which had me chuckling, as well as appreciating how some character traits are similar despite the gulf of time.
If, like me, you enjoy the humorous chick lit authors of Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella, and have an interest in Tudor history, you should enjoy this book.
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Amazon currently have a "Look Inside" feature on this product's page, with an excerpt from the beginning of the book, which allows you to sample the writer's style before buying.
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Faber and Faber (2 April 2009)
I am a big fan of Mavis Cheek, and I can't believe I only found her most recent book by randomly browsing Amazon. I've no idea how it escaped my notice for so long, long enough for it to be out in paperback!
'Amenable Women' is Mavis Cheeks' thirteenth novel. She was inspired by her anger at the unfair treatment of Anne of Cleves by Henry VIIIs PR machine and the misogyny of historians since which has shaped the publics view of her.
Cheeks writing is in the genre of gentle, subtle, and sometimes romantic comedies, she is like a modern Austen or Charlotte Bronte. She has been compared to Alison Weir who wrote a recommendation for the book.
She writes about ordinary middle class, middle aged women who become strong and independent, often after being let down by the arrogant, overbearing 'Great Men' they are married to.
Flora Chapman, in her fifties, has never been beautiful, or even pretty. She is overshadowed and stifled by her dashing and handsome husband Edward who is adored by everyone in their village, and their daughter Hillary who resembles her father and hero-worships him and, along with the rest of the village, barely notices Flora.
Flora has a very different opinion of Edward, he is feckless, impulsive, ignorant and has delusions of grandeur. The novel opens with his funeral. Edward has been very firmly killed off in a bizarre ballooning accident (managing to achieve three different deaths in one), the result of his latest attempt to promote himself as a Great British Eccentric.
Flora originally had the idea of writing a history of their village Hurcott Ducis but it was taken over by the domineering Edward. After his death Flora decides to finish writing the history of their village. She also hopes this will finally win her the respect and affection of her grieving daughter, not letting her know that's its less a 'finishing off' of her fathers' masterpiece and actually a complete re-write.
Annoyed by Edwards dismissive references to Anne of Cleves, Henry VIIIs fourth wife - unkindly dubbed 'The Flanders Mare'- Flora's attention is captured and she discovers Anna had one of her homes on the site of Floras' house after her divorce from Henry. She sets about carrying out her own research in the hope of elevating Anna's own place in British history, and of rescuing them both from the shadows of their husbands.
Flora is determined to lay Anne's unkind reputation to rest. This is not entirely altruistic as she hopes to redeem them both. Their lives are similar in several ways, Flora can empathise with 'The Flanders Mare' as Edward used to refer to her as "bun face". Gossipy Tudor courtiers are compared with Flora's nosy neighbours in her small village. Both women have been seen as unworthy by those around them. There is also a discovery that they both had philandering husbands.
She makes a pilgrimage to the Louvre to see Holbein's portrait of Anne in person.
The message and theme of the book is that diplomatic and 'amenable' women can have good enjoyable lives.
The novel is easy to read, and written in the third person. Mavis Cheek has a tendency to sprinkle fairly obscure literary references and quotations throughout her books, but they are easy to understand and it is casually done. She tends to keep a detached distance from her characters, who would probably prefer it that way, being pragmatic practical types.
There is only one thing I don't think sits very well with the rest of the novel. The portrait of Anne is less passive than you would imagine. I can understand why Cheek wants to give her a voice, but the novel goes from the ordinary to the very surreal and back again as a result of the device she uses, and I found it slightly jarring.
"Holbein shows her qualities as clear as crystal. It's just that nobody seems to have bothered to look."
When I decided to review this book I was about 4/5 of the way through, it was very gripping and I was keen to recommend it. Then the end seemed to be an anti-climax, I felt disappointed and as if I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.... and then after letting my subconscious mull it over for a while, I got it! I understood why it ended the way it did, and then I was satisfied with it. I'm glad I didn't write the review immediately after finishing, my opinion would have been quite different.
A highlight of the novel for me was when Flora goes to confront Edwards' mistress, Pauline 'the little pink Pike', a local Brownie leader. She is bemused by the seductresses' macramé pot holders and corn dollies.
An interview with the author would have been a useful addition at the end of the book. I was left wanting to know which parts of the book were based on fact about Anne of Cleves and Tudor history, and which were fiction.
I know I will re-read 'Amenable Women' and I would recommend it, especially if you like reading about the Tudors, or you are looking for a feel-good beach read.
It is a 344 page paperback, first published in 2008 by Faber and Faber. The recommended price is £7.99, but you can find a cheaper price online, or probably in one of the shop summertime book promotions.
The cover helpfully features the Holbein portrait of Anne of Cleves to refer to. I like that Anna's portrait on the books' spine, so that even when lined up with the other paperbacks, she is looking out at you from the bookshelf.
"A brilliantly funny, warm and intelligent read." The Times
"There's so much to be treasured in this book.. and you don't want it to end." Independent on Sunday