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The Confessions of Catherine de Medici    by C. W. Gortner order for
Confessions of Catherine de Medici
by C. W. Gortner
Order:  USA  Can
Ballantine, 2011 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

C. W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen (Juana la Loca, daughter of Isabel of Castille and Fernando of Aragon) now brings us the story of another strong and much maligned female monarch, the infamous and controversial Catherine de Medici. Was she a ruthless poisoner or an advocate of religious tolerance and the savior of the French monarchy - or perhaps both? Gortner gives us Catherine's own perspective on her long life.

Orphaned soon after her birth in 1517, Catherine, last legitimate descendant of the Medicis, is raised by her beloved aunt Clarice, her life ruled by Papa Clement, the Medici bastard who became Pope Clement VII. Even as a child, she has visions of what is to come. After the first, her aunt takes her to consult with a seer, Maestro Ruggieri, and she meets his sons Carlo and Cosimo (the latter also has presentiments and plays a role in Catherine's later life in France). The Maestro gives Catherine a vial of poison against future need.

When Rome is sacked by Charles V and Clement flees, ten-year-old Catherine is taken from her aunt and her beloved Florence (to save her from an angry mob). She suffers cruel treatment at the hands of the nuns of the Convent of San Lucia, long-time enemies of the Medici. At age thirteen, her aunt dead and Clement returned to power, Catherine is betrothed to Henri, son of François I of France, and later sent to Marseilles. After the wedding, she learns that Henri is committed to his long-time mistress, Diane de Poitiers.

Catherine greatly admires her father-in-law Francois. She befriends her two sisters-in-law, and also Gaspard de Coligny (later to become a Huguenot leader), but rarely sees her young husband. When Francois dies, he bequeathes to Catherine 'his immortal love of France' and Henri is king. Diane, soon anointed duchesse de Valentinois, remains powerful. It is only with her connivance that Catherine is able to bear Henri children, and Diane essentially raises them. In her thirties, Catherine meets Michel de Nostredamus, who shares visions of France's future.

When King Henri meets an untimely end, Catherine is left with six young children and a realm in turmoil. Catholic nobles, spearheaded by the powerful de Guise family, fight against Huguenots (the horrors of this war recalling to Catherine the horrors of her own childhood). Catherine fights to become regent, and for religious tolerance, but mistakes cost her dearly. She loses her children one by one, her relationship with Coligny turns to ashes, and it becomes clear that France's future lies with Henri of Navarre.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is a gripping read about a woman making her way through a perilous political maze, with a kingdom - and her children's lives - at stake. In the Author's Afterword, Gortner tells us that she found in Catherine's letters and other historical sources 'a brave young girl who survived a dangerous childhood and difficult marriage to become a humane woman with an astounding capacity for compromise.' She does an excellent job of telling that woman's story.

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