Early on in The Other Boleyn Girl, the more infamous Anne tells her younger sister, Mary, that Mary always listens to what everyone tells her, whereas she, Anne, accepts no limits. Both sisters get the irony that Anne is one of those who order Mary around. When I read this, I mentally rubbed my hands, anticipating an oft-told tale from a fresh angle: sibling rivalry, red in tooth and claw.
To be sure, Anne’s teeth and claws are much in evidence. There’s nothing she won’t do to advance the Boleyn fortunes and put herself on the throne beside Henry VIII, and so much the better if Mary suffers in the process.
Pushing Mary and Anne forward are their parents and uncle, who care not a farthing for their feelings, nor anyone else’s. Ambition matters above all, and when an ill-conceived jest or the failure to please His Majesty quickly enough can cost a dukedom, only the most ruthless and adept will prosper. The girls’ elder brother, George, tries to make his sisters’ lives easier if and when he can–again, a nice familial touch–but he too must play courtier. Luckily for the Boleyns, he’s good at it.
However, after this rousing, promising start, The Other Boleyn Girl drops dead. The sibling rivalry, though played for the highest stakes, feels like a courtier’s smile, flat, without depth, little more than a concept. Anne keeps hurting Mary. Mary keeps trying not to cry. The narrative keeps going round and round the same mulberry bush, as the mercurial Henry tries to figure out how to secure his throne through a male heir, while his courtiers try to guess what he’ll do next.
But it’s not the story that makes this novel feel static. It’s the characters, who seem all one way or another, all the time. Anne never does anything that’s not selfish, nasty, and conniving, whereas Mary is forever sweet and innocent. Even less believable, she has the political sense of an eight-year-old, which gives her family the occasion to tell her (and the reader) what’s what. The parents and uncle, who are never even named, come across as fairy-tale wicked rather than capable, cold-blooded schemers with beliefs and myths to protect. Henry is never more than a spoiled child with insatiable appetites. And so on.
Generic, flat characters like these arouse sentiment, which fades, rather than empathy, which sticks around. For instance, nobody likes a wicked parent, so we can cringe when they tell their scarred, brutalized daughter to suck it up. But by the fifth time they tell her, maybe we’re not cringing anymore–and, if you’re like me, you start to wonder why you ever did. It might have helped had Mary reflected on her early life or the dreams she had growing up, or what she would have wanted her parents to be for her. But she only mentions once or twice the peculiar strain–which she never really owns–of attending the French court as a very young girl.
Gregory misses a great opportunity here to develop the crux of her novel. How did two sisters, only a few years apart in age, grow up in the same, dreadful place and become such different people? Why does Anne have an incredible drive to be the center of attention, and how did she get so good at it? Maybe you’d say, Oh, that’s just backstory, and who cares? But it’s not. It’s what makes these sisters different from any other you’ve met, yet also recognizable, what fully rounded fictional characters should be. Most important, having a sense of what moves Anne would allow the reader to understand her cruelty in its context, maybe even empathize with her.
The writing doesn’t help. The dialog swims in adverbs; people don’t just say things, they say them flatly, coldly, honestly, frankly, smartly, levelly, fiercely, and so on. Since the characters’ speech needs no explanation, I felt I was being hit over the head. I also tired of characters spitting their words or gritting their teeth to reveal how mad they were, or how often Mary restates the firmly established theme about women oppressed in a man’s world.
Comparing Hilary Mantel to just about anybody is unfair. Nevertheless, I have to point out that Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies riveted me, covering precisely the same well-known history and therefore facing the same storytelling obstacles. The difference? Mantel’s characters have inner lives and complexities that make them fully formed, not just cutouts standing in for what we already believe to be right and just and true–or their polar opposites.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.