Holland’s take on Eleanor of Aquitaine begins in 1150. Her marriage to Louis VII of France has yet to produce a son and heir (only two daughters) and she’s become something of a liability – at least that’s how flunky Thierry and Abbe Bernard see it. Eleanor gets a good look at Henry d’Anjou when he comes to court to pay homage to Louis and she thinks she’d like to dump hubby #1 and hitch her star to Henry instead. As for Henry, yep he’s lusting after the beauteous Eleanor as well, and with a little aid and sleight of hand from her younger sister Petronilla, the two lovers meet and have their night of passion (although this reader found it more eeeewwww than passion).
The story then switches gears to events leading up to Eleanor’s divorce from Louis, dodging a couple of much too amorous suitors and her future with Henry, now Duke of Normandy and soon to be Henry II of England (no spoilers, that’s known history). There is a somewhat fanciful twist to this, hence the “secret” in the book’s title, and that twist puts Petronilla front and center in the action, as well as forever changing the relationship between the two sisters.
My thoughts? While certainly not near as dire as Alison Weir’s Captive Queen, this book didn’t exactly rock my world either. The author had a bad habit at the first of telling us how bad the bad people were with a much too liberal use of stinky breath and body odor. The same goes with Eleanor’s reputation as the big slut of Christendom. We are told she is because all the bad guys call her that, but outside of the one time with Henry (which none of those baddies knew about) I didn’t see references to previous encounters. Or did I miss the boat again?
Even when things centered around Petronilla in the latter half of the book, the pacing was terribly slow, the medieval settings not very believable (I got soooooo tired of hearing about Holy Week), and frankly the big “secret” was just a bit too improbable to believe, let alone that everyone in Eleanor’s household was in on it. Some of it I would buy, but for Henry not to notice up close and personal? Bah!
In the end, I am finally persuaded that Holland is not an author for me. I did enjoy her two Lily Nevada books, but everything else of her’s that I’ve tried has gone flying – including The Bear Flag set in old California, a period that I usually gobble up like a cat with a bowl of cream.
If you enjoy a “what if” story that’s light on the history you might enjoy this, but if you’re expecting an Eleanor on par with Sharon Penman’s I suspect you’ll be sorely disappointed. Library only, and then buy it if you love it.