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Review: Philippa Gregory's "The Last Tudor"

I discovered The Last Tudor by the British author, Philippa Gregory (author of The Other Boleyn Girl), in an airport bookstore in Spain. It caught my attention as the most interesting looking book written in English, but as I moved through the chapters, it quickly became a read full of death and honor, trials and tribulations. The book details the story of the three Grey sisters in 16thcentury England, where beheading and the plague are as common in royal life as arranged betrothals. The Grey girls, Jane, Katherine, and Mary, endure the rule of Queen Elizabeth I as they embark on their respective journeys involving love, loss, and faith. Gregory splits her historical narrative into three parts, one for each girl. Each part builds upon the prior, adding missing details and continuing the story and ultimately leading to a complex narrative told in three different, first-person voices.

I was immediately impressed with how effortlessly Gregory depicts this era. She simply dives right into personal accounts, revealing through her three narrators the multiple complex players in court, showcasing their courage, selfish intentions, and conniving schemes. Each Grey sister has her own, unique perspective, and each one presents a distinct take on what occurs in the court and beyond. Through the Greys, the reader learns about pious Jane, whose deliberations reveal the fraught tension between the Papists and the Protestants, flighty but loveable Katherine, whose fight for love displays how little freedom women had, and stout Mary, whose short height fails to deter her from fighting for her family’s legacy. The three girls help illustrate the complexities required to survive in 16thcentury English society.

I also found Gregory’s characterization of Queen Elizabeth fascinating. This is the queen who refuses to marry but cavorts with a married man, the queen who imprisons her relatives in the infamous Tower and who fends off several attempts of usurpation by becoming a paranoid tyrant. Through the voices of the Grey sisters and others in court, the reader learns the extent to which power corrupts Queen Elizabeth so much so that she fears her own family – imprisoning them and hurting those they love in ways that may seem extreme even to the coldest of souls. But, with Gregory’s talented writing, the reader also develops a strange sense of respect for this woman who runs her country regardless of several plots to dethrone her and remains unmarried despite persistent attempts of suitors and promises of alliances.

However, I have to warn you: This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Queen Elizabeth’s tyrannical ways lead to the demise of numerous characters. I would recommend reading it with a box of tissues nearby, although ultimately, too many people die to cry over all of them. In addition, there are so many names – and most of them repeat! If you are so inclined, I would suggest creating a family tree to keep straight, for example, the various Marys and Katherines.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in 16thcentury England or anyone desiring a complex, well-written read featuring strong female narrators. Gregory packs a punch in her portrayal of the court, conflicting religious faiths, the tenuous balance between life and death, and the importance of love and loyalty throughout life’s hurdles. She clearly has a handle on the time period, and she manages to fit both the goriest and happiest moments into an unforgettable narrative.

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