Not Philippa Gregory’s finest hour, but a light read all the same.
I got this in the Waterstones sale, lured by the author’s name and the beautiful cover. It turns out I should probably have bought something else instead, but I don’t quite regret reading this book either. It’s a strong meh from me.
I wish I had known it was part of the Tidelands trilogy, because this is completely not obvious from the cover or from the description which was on the Waterstones website. I wouldn’t usually read a trilogy out of order, but this time, my perpetration of such a literary faux pas was at least unwitting.
There are plenty of spoilers in this review.
A mysterious widow shows up on the doorstep of her deceased husband’s family. She is twice married- once the widow of a Venetian noble, she has the airs and graces of a lady of leisure. However, her second husband, Robert, was her first husband’s doctor, and a marked step down on the social scale. Robert drowns tragically in the Venice canals, so she flees to London with no other options. At least this is the story she tells. The Reekie family run a sufferance wharf on the rundown southern side of the Thames in London, 1670. It’s restoration England: King Charles II has regained his throne, Oliver Cromwell has been exhumed just to be ‘executed’, and papistry is on the rise once again. The Puritans have been defeated, and many are fleeing to New England to live in their distinctly ascetic manner. The Reekies are Protestant, but matters of religion and state are not of much interest to them, which play out as more of a backdrop to the story. Ned Ferryman, Alinor Reekie’s brother, has moved to New England in refusal to live under a King once more.
The refined yet penniless widow, Nobildonna da Ricci/Picci/Peachey, convinces her poor in-laws to start importing her statue collection from Venice to London, promising them they will earn a fortune once the profits begin to roll in from the sales. But these are empty promises, and Livia is a fraud. She ruthlessly exploits anyone she can for her own gain: lying, scheming and never giving back. She manipulates and gaslights her way into affections of some of her new family, beginning a relationship with her ‘dead’ husband’s sister, Alys, and soon has her wrapped around her little finger. She also seduces a rich northern Lord, Sir James, and convinces him to let her sell her forged statues from his London town house. He proposes to her and she is overjoyed at the promise of becoming a wealthy young noblewoman once again. But she doesn’t fool Alinor, the matriarch of the family. Alinor sends her granddaughter Sarah to look into Robert’s disappearance in Venice, convinced he is not actually dead.
Meanwhile, in New England, Ned is attempting to forge out a life as a free man, yet finds this is more difficult than he thinks. He lives at the edge of town and runs the ferry across the river. This brings him into more contact with the local Native American tribes than the rest of their small European settlement. Ned has no great ambition other than to live simply and independently, but he is soon unsettled by the greed, ambition and prejudice of his fellow settlers. The settlers have been forcing the Pokanoket and Massasoit to sell acres upon acres of their land at rock-bottom prices. There are tensions and stirrings of a coming war between the English and the natives, one which Ned is keen to avoid. He is friends with some of the Pokanoket people, and has far more empathy towards them than the rest of his village. The Pokanoket share their way of life with him and help him to survive the harsh winter. Throughout the course of the novel, he becomes more and more conflicted about where his loyalties truly lie: with the settlers and their conviction that ruling over the natives is God’s plan, or with his Native American friends? Ned is a veteran of the English Civil War, and he does not want to see another war on this new land, one fought not to overthrow a wasteful tyrant but rather in the name of xenophobia and greed.
My favourite story thread was Ned’s. His character development felt realistic and relatable. He is English, but does not see the Pokanoket or Massasoit as his enemies. He is a man who only wants to live peacefully on his own terms, yet it becomes impossible to avoid the developing turmoil. His descriptions of the Native Americans felt sensitive and nuanced, and you can see that Gregory did her homework in this respect. I also like how she doesn’t gloss over the language barrier. As a translator, I become ridiculously frustrated when people from vastly different cultures with vastly different languages appear to communicate with perfect ease in perfect English on the pages of a book. Often, the fact that they would have been speaking either in broken English, a vehicular language, or another foreign language altogether is completely glossed over. However, not here. Ned, when speaking in the Pokanoket language, reverts to the grammar and lexicon of an eight-year-old child, showing the reader that his grasp of the language is far from fluent. Conversely, the Native Americans have their own way of speaking English. In the other threads of the story, Gregory also introduces a lot of Italian words when Livia is speaking, reminding us she would have been speaking English with a strong Italian accent and flavour.
Although much of the plot was very predictable and transparent, there were some unexpected twists. For example, I had no idea that Signor Russo, Livia’s business partner for shady dealings in Venice, was actually also a grave robber with corpses in the basement. But honestly, that was about the only surprise in the book, which isn’t saying much for the plot.
Gregory’s prose was, as ever, highly readable, but I did notice some odd grammar in places and I do wonder if she may have gotten a tiny bit complacent in her career.
Boy do I have a few of these.
Plot holes, plot holes everywhere. When Sarah discovers the truth about Russo and Livia’s successful plot to denounce her second husband Robert in Venice, alarm bells started ringing. I had so many questions. Apparently, they denounced him and had him arrested because he had discovered their secrets about robbing graves and forging antiques. But then, when in prison and being interrogated, why wouldn’t Robert have thrown them under the bus and denounced them right back? In the seething hotbed of deceit and surveillance that was 17th century Venice, all Robert would have had to have done was whisper ‘there’s bodies in Russo’s basement’ into any nearby guard’s ear. That would have been the end of their schemes. Would they really have taken such a massive risk here?
Secondly, Russo is apparently simultaneously the biggest crook in Venice and hugely in favour with the Doge, a senior spy and government official. Okay, so if Venice is a city where everyone knows everything about anyone, how has he managed to keep this a secret? The way Gregory describes Venice, it would have been impossible. Crime there was almost zero because of the incredibly high risk of getting caught and the incredibly draconian punishments. This just doesn’t add up and it feels just far too convenient for the plot: Sarah had to be able to get into the palace to find out what had happened to Robert, so Russo just happened to be bosom buddies with the Doge and able to plead his case? In Venice, it was illegal to lie, on pain of a long, slow death in the palace dungeons. But apparently they just waltz into the palace, admit to Sarah’s forged identity papers, admit that Russo lied to get Robert imprisoned, find out the story of what happened to Robert, and waltz straight back out again? Just what the hell?
Thirdly, Livia was just about the most obvious villain I have ever read. She may as well have been stroking a white cat on a swivel chair and chuckling softly to herself from the get-go. All black and red and false grief, she apparently fools half of London about her backstory and modus operandi. I just don’t buy it. Alys clearly isn’t a fool, having lived through one charlatan husband who jilted her, and having met all sorts of salubrious characters during her long career at the docks. Why on God’s green Earth would she have fallen hook, line and sinker for Livia’s bullshit? And why doesn’t Alinor lift a single finger to stop the wharf getting into mountains of debt due to Livia’s long yarns about flipping a huge profit selling ‘priceless antiques’, when she always needs someone else to foot the bill? Alinor behaves ridiculously passively, and it’s extremely out of character for her. She knows Livia’s no good from the start, yet continues letting her live in their house, swanning around, taking and not contributing, when money has always been tight? It seems to be just for the sake of the story, and Gregory is usually a better author than this. Alinor always knew she would never get the whole truth about Robert from Livia, so we would have had nothing to lose had she just kicked Livia out and sent Sarah to Venice to investigate anyway.
The New England thread is the only one which comes close to believable, and I’m confused about why Gregory decided to include it in this book. There’s no real connections between the New England storyline and the European ones throughout the entire novel, and no real common themes either. I don’t mind a novel which skips and jumps between different people, places or even time periods, but not without rhyme or reason. The threads are supposed to come together by the end, and they don’t here. I won’t be getting the third novel in the Tidelands series if one appears.