I did not do myself any favors waiting so long to review The Serpent Garden, because now what I remember is that this book alternates between being pretty interesting and completely off-the-wall crazy.
Let’s start with the good, for which I’ll just refer to the Goodreads summary: “The book opens in Tudor England, where Henry VIII and his Machiavellian counselor Cardinal Wolsey are scheming to put an English heir on the French throne. They are arranging to marry Henry’s pretty, frivolous younger sister, Mary, to the aging king of France, and they are succeeding thanks in no small measure to a breathtaking miniature of Mary that has been delivered secretly into the king’s hands. Everyone wants to know the identity of the painter who created this small miracle, and speculation is rampant. Because women are not allowed in the painters’ guild, no one suspects that the artist is a woman, Susanna Dallet, who has been bitterly disappointed by her cad of a husband, who left her widowed and penniless with only her nearly divine talent for portrait painting to sustain herself. Susanna catches the eye and not-quite-benign protection of the manipulative, scheming, brilliant Wolsey – who is utterly captivated by her wit, her independence, and her uncanny gift for capturing character with the delicate strokes of her tiny brush. Placed in the entourage of the princess-bride as she travels stormy seas to the royal wedding, Susanna unknowingly carries with her to France the key to a secret that will embroil her in the diabolical plots swirling through the French court.”
Right here, this is a great historical fiction story. It has the underdog tale of a widow with no social or political cache who is able to flip her talent into a truly remarkable position in the court. Not just good with a brush, Susanna is also cunning and takes advantage of everyone’s assumption that she is stupid and meek. Right off the bat, she is able to profit from her husband’s demise by playing the victimized fool, and as a member of Mary’s entourage, she further benefits from being unseen or disregarded as important. Susanna’s treatment at the hands of others, though rarely outright terrible, speaks to her position both as a woman and as a member of the working “creative” class. First she is disregarded as an artist for being female, with those in denial insisting she is not responsible for her work. Then, even once her ability has been validated and she is taken on in the court as something of a resident artist, her lack of nobility leads most to assume that she is neither clever nor even potentially educated. While it’s true that in most situations, women of the time wouldn’t have anything approaching a former education, Susanna is Flemish by birth and her father had ensured she be endowed with at least some working knowledge and fluency in French as well as English. For obvious reasons, this gives her an advantage working in the French court.
Though billed as a romance, and in particular a Top 100 romance by NPR on their recent list, the actual romance in this story is not the main plot. The political intrigue is. But we are treated to an often antagonistic relationship between Susanna and one of Wosley’s assistants that somehow eventually finds its way around to being love. If I’m being perfectly honest, while the romance didn’t detract from the rest of the story, it also wasn’t really needed and as such I take issue with the book being considered “a romance” at all. It’s a romance much in the way that any story is if two people end up kissing at the end.
But the truly batty part of the book, which actually is quite a lot of it, is the subplot involving the angel of art, and a demon that was summoned by some colleagues of Susanna’s husband, and those colleagues going mad and attempting to murder each other, and a supernaturally inclined shadowy old-timey organization that is trying to put the Merovingians on the French throne, and another shadowy old-timey organization that is trying to prevent that, and I might be mixing up who are supernaturally involved but WHATEVER. It was all way too complicated and WHY. The humans in the book provided enough intrigue without trying to bring angels and demons into it.
Obviously, in the end, I gave The Serpent Garden 4 stars. It was entertaining, and I don’t read a lot of stories about this particular era in Tudor England, so it was a nice change.