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A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

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A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

Post by boswellbaxter » Mon January 5th, 2009, 3:28 pm

A Secret Alchemy is narrated by two historical characters, Elizabeth Woodville and her brother Anthony, and by one fictitious, contemporary one, Una Pryor, a historian who's returned to England from her home in Australia to sell her English property. During her stay in England, the recently widowed Una, who's working on a book about Anthony Woodville and his reading, visits the cousins with whom she was raised and encounters the man whom she loved as an adolescent.

Anthony's story begins with the last journey of his life: he is bound for Pontefract Castle, where he knows that the future Richard III has scheduled his execution. Elizabeth tells her story from the quiet confines of Bermondsey Abbey, to which she has retired from the court of Henry VII. Neither tells his or her life story from beginning to end; instead, they each focus on a few selected episodes, such as Elizabeth's courtship by Edward IV and Anthony's exile abroad. As a result, the cast of characters is relatively small: we meet Edward IV, Edward V, a few Woodvilles, Anthony's lover, and Elizabeth's long-time attendant and confidante. There's a cameo appearance by Thomas Malory and a couple of very brief ones by the future Richard III.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anthony's and Elizabeth's stories, and had tears in my eyes after reading both (which doesn't happen very often, especially when I know the ending). Anthony's tale, especially the love story Darwin gives him (which I found very plausible) and his terrible grief when he realizes that his charge Edward V is at the mercy of Richard III, is very moving. Elizabeth, who's so often reduced to a caricature by historical novelists, is beautifully drawn here. She's strong-minded and courageous, yet vulnerable. There's even a touch of humor here and there, as when Elizabeth's earthy sister Margaret comments on the queen's morning sickness.

The contemporary story, Una's, was well done also. I didn't find it as compelling as the medieval ones, but Darwin did a nice job of working the historical strands and the contemporary strand into an integrated whole.

Darwin has researched her novel with care, and she provides an afterword putting the tales of Anthony and Elizabeth in their historical context.

I heartily recommend this novel.
Susan Higginbotham
Coming in October: The Woodvilles


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Post by Misfit » Mon January 5th, 2009, 5:13 pm

This one sounds interesting, thanks. We've got a fledling Richard III group started over at goodreads so I'll add this one to the bookshelf as well as my TBR pile.

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Post by Laura » Mon January 5th, 2009, 5:37 pm

Thanks for this nice suggestion Susan, this book seems to be quite interesting.

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Post by sweetpotatoboy » Mon January 5th, 2009, 5:44 pm

I added this (or rather the paperback version when it's released) to my wishlist a couple of weeks ago after reading a glowing review of it in The Times. Your review confirms my wish to read it!

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Post by Amanda » Mon January 5th, 2009, 9:54 pm

I've had this on my wishlist for a while. Great to read a good review here!

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Post by Susan » Mon January 5th, 2009, 10:30 pm

Thank you for the review. I'm going to put this on my wish list.
Last edited by Susan on Tue January 6th, 2009, 2:01 am, edited 1 time in total.
~Unofficial Royalty~
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Post by Veronica » Tue August 11th, 2009, 7:06 am

I could not stand this book! I read half of it and then put it down, something I rarely do.
"Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted"

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Post by Chatterbox » Wed August 12th, 2009, 6:25 pm

By contrast, I absolutely loved it! Especially the historical dimension. Although the sun/moon theme was sometimes a bit heavy-handed for my taste. I occasionally felt like hollering, OK, enuf already, we get it!

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Post by Misfit » Wed August 12th, 2009, 6:59 pm

This is definitely you either love it or hate it kind of book IMO.
At home with a good book and the cat...
...is the only place I want to be

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Post by EC2 » Wed August 12th, 2009, 7:49 pm

Thanks for the reviews and opinions. One for the library for me I think - if I like I will buy.
Les proz e les vassals
Souvent entre piez de chevals
Kar ja li coard n’I chasront

'The Brave and the valiant
Are always to be found between the hooves of horses
For never will cowards fall down there.'

Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal


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