The Courtesan is based on a fascinating bit of history that is ultimately bogged down by too much romance, which is really a shame because I’m now scrambling to find what will hopefully be more satisfying reads on the period. Haeger’s novel is about the relationship between the future Henri II of France and Diane de Poitiers that began shortly after his return as a troubled young teen from imprisonment in Spain. Despite the twenty some year difference in their ages, Henri is enthralled with the widowed Diane and notwithstanding the anger of his father Francois and his marriage to Catherine de Medici the relationship remains strong throughout the rest of their lives and once Henri becomes King, Diane is literally the power behind the throne.
That’s pretty much the basic outline, most of what follows is known history and recapped enough in the other reviews on Amazon and Wik that I needn’t rehash it again. It’s a story begging to be told with all the things I love to find in a piece of historical fiction – a woman who is able to hold onto a King’s love despite treachery, betrayal, passion, intrigues and schemes – what’s not to love? Unfortunately the author let herself get mired in the romance and was never able to get herself out of it. All we hear is Diane’s perfection in all things, her great beauty (if I heard about her alabaster skin one more time…..), Henri’s unwavering adoration (it does get nauseating after a while), and gag me (!) those first love scenes at Chenonceau. The good people were very very good and the bad people were a bit of a disappointment – couldn’t she do better than always painting Catherine with a wicked twist to her smile or always harping on her weight? I’d rather have an over the top villainess I love to hate than a cartoon caricature.
So, if you want to read a historical romance about a younger man and an older woman and don’t mind a sloooooow paced start this might be the book for you. For me, this was a teaser that was ultimately unsatisfying and has left me hungry for something more on the topic. Surely there is more to Diane’s ability to hold Henri to her for so many years besides her goodness and purity. Until C.W. Gortner’s book on Catherine comes out next year I’m hoping The Devil’s Queen: A Novel of Catherine de Medici will do the trick. I also found a Dumas novel called The Two Dianas that I’m hoping to get my hands on. 3/5 stars.