As a disclaimer, I will admit that Sophie Perinot is a friend of mine, and I very much hope that her debut novel "The Sister Queens" hits the New York Times list and is then made into a blockbuster film starring Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence in fabulous silk dresses. But I do not post false reviews, even for my friends - had I read "The Sister Queens" and disliked it, I would have called Sophie up and lied like a rug, saying that I hadn't had a chance to read it yet and blah blah blah. I would certainly not post a glowing review, since I only review books I genuinely like. I read "The Sister Queens," I loved "The Sister Queens," and I would have loved it whether I knew the author or not. End of disclaimer.
Sister drama that isn't about Anne and Mary Boleyn - bliss! Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence are sort of like the high-medieval version of the Middleton sisters - poised and gorgeous heiresses comfortable in the spotlight of the world stage. Women want to be them; men (and more importantly, kings) want to marry them. Demure Marguerite/Kate Middleton will wed Louis IX and become queen of France, and fiery Eleanor/Pippa Middleton will marry Henry III and become Queen of England. Through the next twenty years their letters cross the channel, telling of husbands and children and crusades and bitchy mothers-in-law, and their closeness never fades. Sister drama is at the heart of this novel, but true sister drama, not the soap opera rivalry of less subtle novels. Eleanor may feel competitive with Marguerite, and Marguerite may lecture Eleanor, but their closeness transcends both petty cat-fighting and national politics.
In a refreshing change for a female-driven novel, the men here are not just paper-doll accessories to the women, but complex and fully-rounded characters in their own right. Henry of England is a flawed and impulsive ruler but a doting husband and a loving father; Louis of France is an able administrator but also a religious fanatic who sees no evil in burning the lips off a man who takes the name of the Lord in vain. The sisters face opposing problems in their marriages; Eleanor struggling to guide her husband away from political mistakes but reveling in their mutual love; Marguerite admiring Louis's political acumen but withering slowly under his coldness.
The writing is polished and easy, the voices natural and distinct. The expert use of present tense brings immediacy to what might be a very foreign setting. I rooted especially for Marguerite, and I longed to drop an anvil on King Louis's smug head. "The Sister Queens" is an accomplished debut for Sophie Perinot, and I will be pleased to read anything else she publishes without the inward fear of "Oh no, what if I hate my friend's book?"