By Maureen Lee Lenker
August 21, 2019 at 09:00 AM EDT
Atria Books

Philippa Gregory has made a name for herself chronicling the lives of Tudor and Plantagenet women. Rising to international success with The Other Boleyn Girl, she established her pattern of taking historically marginalized women and coloring in their stories in breathtaking, vital detail.

With her latest novel, Tidelands, she steps even further into the weeds of history (and returns to her roots of The Wideacre trilogy) with the fictional story of a woman traditional historians might not even deem a footnote (at least, not before the last decade or so of academia’s attempts to expand beyond their traditionally very male and very noble research subjects).

Alinor is a poor woman living in England’s tidelands, beset by suspicion from her neighbors and the country’s roiling civil war that threatens to topple centuries of monarchical rule. She’s not a queen or in any way related to the political intrigues at the heart of her nation, unlike so many of Gregory’s heroines before her — instead, she’s a working woman struggling to do her best by her children, her village, and her own heart. The tides of history are still very much at play here, but at a more background level, as we see how the political fortunes of a nation impact the poorest in the country rather than those at its center.

After being abandoned by her husband, Alinor struggles to care for her two children, employing her skills as a midwife and healer. But her entire life is upended when she meets a stranger on a dark night — a young priest, who calls himself James Summer, and is a secret emissary to the imprisoned Charles I. It’s already a dangerous time for any woman who dares to be different, but Alinor complicates matters by falling for the priest.

The subject matter, though far from the Tudor court, is an admirable, natural step for Gregory, taking her devotion to telling women’s stories and making history her story to the next level. She writes in her author’s note that she intends for it to be the first in a lengthy series about a single-family and their rises (and falls) in fortune. But Gregory fails to capture the spark of what makes so much of her previous work a gripping read. The novel is the definition of a slow burn, with your interest in its proceedings likely to rise and fall with the tides of its settings until its accelerated final third.

Alinor’s ambitions, desires, and fears are certainly worthy of exploration in a novel. But Gregory strangely holds Alinor at arm’s length. She feels more like a fictional invention, a character lacking the complexities of a real person, than a living, breathing woman making a life for herself in treacherous times.

The central romance, which should benefit from a Fleabag inspired hot priest furor, burns with less intensity than much of her previous work. Without question, it’s partly intentional — James is never meant to be anything other than a man unable to see past the narrow parameters of his own privilege. But it obfuscates Alinor’s devotion to him and his secrets, rather than providing a rich playground to explore her own emotional turmoil. What is juicier than an illicit relationship with a priest who is also a royalist spy? And yet, Gregory studiously avoids some of the delicious angst of her previous novels, instead instilling Alinor with an internal calm that dulls the edges of the book’s high stakes.

Gregory has never shied away from declaring herself a staunch feminist, but the book includes a perplexing abortion subplot that is perhaps the most heavy-handed thing she’s ever written. It’s difficult to get into specifics without spoiling its details, but suffice it to say that the plotting here feels decidedly antithetical to any political views Gregory has previously espoused. It’s not that a novel needs to be explicitly political, but that Gregory always strives to make hers such. She regularly beats the drum for women’s history in vital and necessary ways, but here she opts for a stance that feels decidedly icky (and not necessarily in keeping with her characters’ lives).

Gregory has become a shining star of women’s historical fiction over the last two decades. With her insightful view into the lives and minds of the women she writes about, she has substantially altered the historical narrative surrounding countless figures and lifted them out of obscurity to tell their stories as they deserve. Her work is a textbook guide on how to utilize the female gaze in fiction — from descriptions of power and desire to her captivating romances (though the author regularly rejects any association with the genre and its trappings).

From her presence on television as the inspiration behind several series to her best-selling track record, it’s hard to overstate just how enormous an impact Gregory has had on the ways we consider and investigate women’s history. Alinor is a worthy heroine, but Gregory is so intoxicated with her character’s status as an ordinary woman that the book becomes as dull, drab, and well, ordinary as the trappings of her heroine’s world. That ultimately works against her desire to elevate the stories of women, to lift their personal struggles and triumphs into something worthy of recording.

Tidelands lacks the immediacy and vibrancy of so much of her work, often feeling just as mired in the fog and muck as her heroine. It’s not that we need Gregory to stick to royal women, so much as we wish this tale was told with half the urgency and exceptionalism that she has accorded them. C+

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