Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Favoured Child by Philippa Gregory

The Favoured Child This got my “Most Frustrating Book of the Year 2009” award. As I am not in the habit of awarding such titles to books, this is a big deal. I picked up this book because I had always thought of Gregory as an historical author, who only dealt in historical events (she is, after all, famously the author of The Other Boleyn Girl) so I was interested to know what her original work would be like. I realised too late I had picked up the second instalment in a trilogy. However, that didn’t matter at all, I didn’t feel that I lost anything by not reading the first book, Wideacre. Gregory admirably pulls off a feeling of continuity while creating a story in and of itself.

It is the story of the next generation on the Wideacre estate. Beatrice Lacey has been dead for years, leaving behind her son, Richard and her niece, Julia, who narrates the novel as she grows up with Richard. Wideacre Hall has not been rebuilt after the fire and the village of Acre is destitute. Julia and Richard, raised in the Dower House by Julia’s mother, on money sent by Richard’s father, have promised to marry each other and restore the estate to its former glory. There is also a sense of magic in the novel because the villagers believe that only one of the children can be the favoured child of the title – only one will have inherited the sight and Beatrice’s gift with the land.

I fully expected to like the novel. The idea of Julia and Richard being haunted by Beatrice, the promise of magic and the pull of their destinies thrilled me. These are the novel’s successes. Beatrice is a living presence in the novel and the magic never descends into the sort of cloaks and broomsticks stuff that thrives in Harry Potter but would have been out of place here. The magic is of an earthy kind, based on old country traditions and rituals, like crowning the Queen of the May. Dreams that come true are about as outlandish as it gets, but I have to admit that it can all get very twee. The depiction of poverty in Acre, for example, didn’t quite sit right with me.

Which is where my frustration comes in. A lot is said about the absolute poverty of the village of Acre. A lot is said too about their mistrust and dislike of the Laceys after Beatrice turned from the golden girl who made the land grow into a power mad harpy. But when it comes down to it, the villagers’ trust seems to be as easily won as their bellies are filled. It all just felt too easy and convenient. I’m also still uncertain about how the Laceys’ actually manage to acquire enough cash to help the village and themselves after so long in poverty. But this was a minor point really, I could have lived with these convenient plot devices, but I couldn’t live with the characters.

Again, a lot is said about them but actions speak louder than words and I couldn’t tally their behaviour with what Julia told me. Julia says that her cousin Richard is handsome, charming and loved by all. Why he was so universally adored I just couldn’t fathom. It’s true that his cruelty is generally – and secretly – aimed at Julia, but really, he’s such a smarmy little so-and-so that I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him. Then there is Julia, into whose company I was forced because she’s narrating the story. She goes off to Bath with her Mama and returns – so she says – utterly in love, a stronger and more confident young woman, able to stand up her bullying younger cousin Richard. Utter tosh. She’s as weak and simpering as she ever was and drove me completely up the wall. Even when she sees Ricard for what he is, she goes running to him. The strength she says she has is never in evidence, she is completely delusional. “Sensible” really isn’t Julia’s middle name, but “Repetitive” is – I was barely a third of the way through the book before I was heartily sick of hearing about her being “A Lacey on the land!”

Julia is not the only one that falls prey to a lack of continuity, even her mother and Uncle John say one thing and do another. When her dreams start coming true and Julie says she has the sight, they think she’s losing her mind and pack her off to a doctor in Bath. However, they shrug and get over it when Julia “stands up to them” a little while later.

I finished the book with a scream of frustration. Somewhere in here is a really good story, about the magic of the land, about superstition and control, about two cousins vying for first position. But thanks to the simpering miss who narrates the story, it wasn’t one I really enjoyed.

Harper Collins, 2006. ISBN-10: 0007230028. 640pp.

8 comments on “The Favoured Child by Philippa Gregory

  1. annebrooke
    February 5, 2010

    Ooh dear, Nikki – looks like I’d better give this one a miss then! Now I know the reason why I’ve never read Gregory’s non-historical work, though I do love her historical stuff. 🙂 It sounds all very dodgy!!

    Axxx

  2. niks87
    February 5, 2010

    Anne, I think the worst thing was that it wasn’t totally and utterly awful so I couldn’t just put it down and move on. There was enough right with it for what was wrong to really matter to me. It’s a shame really because if only Julia and Richard were a little less irritating and daft I’d have enjoyed it completely.

  3. The Literary Omnivore
    February 5, 2010

    I’ll definitely give this a wide berth- telling and not showing? And no character development? Weak. I’m sorry this was so bad.

  4. Hilary
    February 5, 2010

    Nikki, I too have been irritated by Philippa Gregory not being bad enough not to be good. For me, it was a recent historical work, The Constant Princess, and repetition was the culprit – also the basic premise, which was just not quite plausible enough to sustain the many hundreds of pages of the novel. I agree – it is so frustrating! I should be always eagerly looking forward to her next, just as I was dying to read more after ‘The Other Boleyn Girl’, but now I’ve got two doorstopping hardbacks waiting for me to find time in my busy reading schedule to take the risk!

  5. Jackie
    February 5, 2010

    I read this trilogy a couple years ago & found it inferior to Gregory’s other work, it was as melodramatic as a soap opera. Some of the characters were likable, but I found the stories themselves rather predictable & without a great deal of depth. I was really disappointed, because I’d liked Gregory’s previous novels.
    The library copy I read of this one didn’t have that nice cover, though. But it too, gives the wrong impression of the book, with that horse chin on, it’s not a historical Dick Francis.

  6. Nikki
    February 5, 2010

    The Literary Omnivore, showing-not-telling really does frustrate me mainly because I’ve had it drummed into me when I was studying.

    Jackie, oh yes, melodrama is the word. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s something that happens to Julia in the last third or so of the novel and I actually wanted to shake her because of the way she reacted to it seemed so at odds to what seemed natural, especially for what we’d been told (not shown!) about her strength of character!

    Hilary, I think you’re right about length. If you were to sum up the story here, it would have been tighter at half the length. I sometimes felt uneasy about the repetition alongside the showing-not-telling. I felt that perhaps I was in the company of an author who didn’t quite feel she had made her point, who didn’t entirely trust in the strength of her characters. That’s not a comfortable place for a reader to be.

  7. libs
    February 5, 2010

    I tried to read the first of the Wideacre novels but gave it up part why through because it was simply too weird and perverted.

    This trilogy were the first books that PG wrote and I think her inexperience as a writer shows in them.

  8. Kris
    March 31, 2020

    I think this reviewer did herself and the reader a huge disservice by choosing to read the second book in a trilogy (a simple google search could have avoided that error) then spending so much of the review complaining about things being unclear or unrealistic that had she done her due diligence and the read the first book (which is FAR superior) would have made sense with context. This may be the laziest most misguided book review I’ve ever read.

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This entry was posted on February 5, 2010 by in Entries by Nikki, Uncategorized and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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