Monday, January 15, 2007

An oldie, but goodie

I've been slowly rereading The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch the last week or two and have finally concluded it is one of my favorite books.

It took me forever to come to that decision, though, because this nutty family saga is not an easy book to love at first. The first time I read it, I set it down not knowing what to think of it.

My fascination with all-things John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford first directed me to The Wheel of Fortune a couple of years ago because, while ostensibly it's a family saga about this zany clan of aristocrats called the Godwins living on the Welsh/English border in the early part of the 20th Century, in reality, it's about the 14th Century royal Plantagenets. Every character in the book has some counterpoint in the courts of King Edward III and Richard II:

"Robert Godwin" = Edward, the Black Prince
His wife "Ginerva" = Edward's wife, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent
His brother "Johnny" = John of Gaunt, while Johnny's beautiful mistress Bronwen = Katherine in disguise
"Kester" is Richard II
"Harry" is Henry IV
And "Hal" is Henry V.

I still marvel when I think about how how well Howatch translated events from one century to another. A concept this crazy should not work this well.

Another thing is, the book doesn't just have one narrator - or even two or three. No fewer than six members of the Godwin clan get a chance to tell a part of the story. And each section builds on the points of view that came before it. You only get to hear the deepest thoughts and motivations of one character at a time, but then you move on to another narrator and get a completely different perspective on the character and events you just followed. It can be a frustrating way of telling a story (how I wanted to know what Bronwen was thinking sometimes! You get to hear from nearly everyone else.) - but it's also fascinating to get a new perspective every few hundred pages or so. You're guaranteed to change your opinion of each Godwin about half a dozen times - sometimes even more than once in a chapter.

As I said before, this book isn't an easy one to love. It especially gets bogged down in "Hal's" section as he tries to play amateur detective and solve a murder mystery from a previous generation. But the more times I read it, the more I get hooked on the characters and their obsessions. It's easy to believe that if we could jump into a time machine to the 14th Century, we'd find Howatch got her psychological "facts" just about right.

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