The Sixth Wife

Suzannah Dunn
2008, Historical Fiction (1540s Tudor England)
Harper, $13.95, 302 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061431567

Grade: C
Sensuality: Warm

Suzannah Dunn states in an essay included in this novel that she seeks to write real human drama rather than stilted costume drama. I find this aim admirable, and I'm all for books that connect and resonate with the reader. However, in this case a cursory historical gloss and soap operatic tone turned what could have been a dramatic reinterpretation of the events leading up to Katherine Parr's death into a rather ordinary and sometimes even dull read.

Many people know that Katherine Parr( Kate) was the last wife of King Henry VIII of England and that she survived him. Fewer know that Katherine was highly intelligent, well-educated, a devout Protestant, and that she caused something of a scandal by marrying the feckless Thomas Seymour not long after Henry VIII's death. In this novel readers see the events following Kate's marriage through the eyes of her close friend Catherine, Duchess of Sussex (Cathy).

Historians tell us of Kate's quick marriage, her pregnancy, and even the speculation surrounding the residence of the young Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey at her home. However, the main strength of this novel lies in the author's ability to fill in some of the blanks with speculation as to how Kate's life affected those close to her. Even with its flaws, this story shows the reader why Katherine Parr is interesting and even important outside of her previous marriage to Henry VIII.

Sadly, one must wade through a lot of tedious muck to get to the really good parts of this novel. While some of the scenes between Kate and Cathy are interesting to read, it's difficult to get a clear sense of some of the other characters, which caused problems while reading. For instance, in order for the story to make sense, one has to understand on a certain level why Kate would love Thomas so deeply - and one could argue - so blindly. The relationship between the two is drawn in such mundane terms, and the history at crucial points given such a thin gloss that this critical point of the plot was lost to me. I believe the author earnestly tried to make her characters seem like real human beings rather than stiff historical figures, but at times they read like two-dimensional stock soap opera characters.

In addition, important secondary characters such as Princess Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey lack dimension and complexity. I rarely got the sense that they actually lived and had personalities of their own. The author tells the story through Cathy's eyes, and her limited perception may explain part of this problem. However, given that Cathy at her best is a sharp observer of those around her, one would expect her to see more in these girls since she resides in their household for much of the story. Cathy can be a very astute narrator at times, but she does fall oddly short on some very important characters.

While The Sixth Wife contains some interesting interpretations of history told by a narrator who is intriguing, even if not likable in the conventional sense, it ultimately felt like a very ordinary book. The author's decision to cut out the stuffier aspects associated with historical fiction perhaps took things too far. In not leaving quite enough of the historical background behind, the story occasionally felt like a garden-variety soap opera. Though things improved greatly by the end, the change came too late to save it from being a disappointingly average read for me.

-- Lynn Spencer

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