Book Review

Book Review of Godiva by Nicole Galland 4 stars

Godiva

Godiva: A Novel

Godiva is unlike any other historical fiction novel I've ever read. It's a perfect light read for someone who wants to stay in the historical fiction genre but doesn't want a serious, fact-filled tome of the likes of Sharon Kay Penman. It's the consummate book to bring along on a vacation or to read when you expect a lot of interruptions because it doesn't require a lot of brain power. You know the kind of book where you have to keep in mind 547 different characters, stuffed full of so many scenes drawn from real history in order to make it factual? This is NOT that. Godiva is historical fiction lite. It's funny, entertaining and doesn't take itself seriously, even though it recounts quite a few real events and people from the 11th century.

The novel starts out with a historical note that covers some of the 11th century politics. After reading it, I was expecting a novel that was really full of depth and quite serious. While the introduction gives you a little bit of background of what was going on at the time, it seems to set you up to expect a story about King Edward and Leofric (an earl of a rich and powerful area of early England known as Mercia). However, while these two make frequent appearances in the book, the story is really more of a "romp" about Godiva, events leading up to her famous ride in the buff as well as a story line about her childhood friend Edgiva and the mess she finds herself in.

MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THE BOOK:

The very first part of the novel is a bit misleading. I instantly thought, "Oh no, it's one of THOSE books." By that I mean one of those bodice ripping romances. You've got an immediate scene with Godiva getting what she wants by using a heavy handed dose of feminine charm. I can't stand historical fiction "imposters" that wrap a few weak historical moments in a package of tawdry scenes of "quivering anticipation" and almost stopped reading Godiva thinking it was heading down that path. However, because this was an ARC (advanced review copy), I felt a bit more obligated to plow through. I'm glad I did because it turns out that Godiva was NOT a historical romance, even though the heroine is quite a flirt. A quote from the book sums it up:

" "I will never understand you two," the abbess said., blue eyes glancing from one to the other. "I believe you are devoted in your marriage, and yet Godiva behaves like a heathen strumpet almost daily."
"I do not," Godiva rebuked her affectionately. "I simply find flirting an effective way of getting a man's complete attention while conveniently disarming him at the same time."
"It is remarkable, " Leofric assured the abbess, "what crumbs of information men share with her that never would they share with me."
"It is because you are not as pretty as I am," Godiva said.
The abbess pursed her lips to repress both a grudging smile and chastisement. "

Thankfully, the s*x scenes that did exist were indirectly mentioned and not descriptive. OK, so Godiva is not a historical romance. That isn't to say it was devoid of love or affection though. There was a narrative thread that explored a bit of a dilemma involving a love interest (not with Godiva though, as she was totally faithful to her husband throughout the book).

In the novel, Godiva and Leofric have a very strong and loving relationship. He is quite often exasperated with the strong woman that is his wife though - basically shaking his head and whatever trouble she manages to inadvertently stir up. He is fond of her and even while he encourages her to poke and prod around where most 11th century women wouldn't dare, he still finds himself disbelieving at the trouble she can get herself into at times:

"He opened his eyes wide and looked up at her. "You mean you kept out of something?" he said. "Praise Woden and pass the mead."

The above is an example of the humor interspersed throughout the story. As I said before, Godiva doesn't take itself seriously. There are parts of the book dripping with sarcasm or a bit of subtle playfulness that keeps the reading light and fun. An example of this is when King Edward sends a messenger to Leofric and Godiva. After poking fun of the fact that he has a Norman accent which makes his "pomposity all the more pompous", Leofric adds in a little snarky comment at the end of the messenger's speech:

"His Majesty requires a response immediately," said Pomposity Embodied. "I must depart from hence at once with your answer, in order that I may return to him with it and he may then begin his journey hither in time to be present on May Day."

"Who uses words like hence and hither in common conversation?" Leofric scoffed."

I found myself snickering occasionally while reading Godiva - a rarity for this particular genre.

Sometimes Leofric and Godiva are almost like modern day people plopped down in the past. Godiva is not the embodiment of the demure, submissive wife of the day and Leofric seems to be a lenient husband brought up in a culture of women's lib not 1030. However, the story is still steeped in the history of the times with the setting accurately reflecting reality. It wasn't too distracting; it was just part of the humor and lightness of the novel.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:

As for the historical accuracy, it seems that Edgiva's and Godivas interwoven stories are a total grab-bag mix of facts and fiction. Based on my own research, it appears that Edgiva's story, as presented by the author, is more historically accurate than Godiva's. If you are a stickler for totally accurate historical fiction (you history purists know who you are!), you may not like the fact that Nicole Galland strays from the common re-telling of Lady Godiva's story. Instead of the taxes being imposed by her husband, in the story they are a burden imposed by King Edward through the heregeld (a tax begun by his half-brother Harthacnut). In fact, in Godiva, Leofric offers to pay the tax for her, in order to spare her the humiliation of riding through the streets naked. Yet he doesn't impose his will on her when she insists on doing so (very unlike an 11th century husband, I would think). The story also has Godiva as childless and perhaps barren, although in real life she had a son.

Despite this part of the story straying from what appears to be the commonly understood historical reason for Godiva's ride through Coventry, Nicole Galland did include a lot of the known facts (and/or conjecture) about Godiva such as how she was a generous religious benefactor and mentions the May Queen pagan fertility ritual that some historians have connected to elements of the Godiva legend. She also covers some of the politics of the time and the tension between King Edward and his nobles.

The more accurate part of the novel, at least according to my research, deals with Edgiva and Sweyen. Edgiva is an abbess but finds herself falling in love with the young, dashing Seweyn. I won't ruin what happens between the two with spoilers, but I found Nicole's version of their story very plausible and in keeping with what is known from historical records. In fact, it was fun to research the story a bit more after I finished the book to find out what happened with those two, as the book leaves you with a small cliffhanger concerning them. Nicole certainly left herself an opening for a sequel in their stories - something I hope she pursues as I'd like to read more.

SUMMARY:

I have such mixed feelings about Godiva. I usually like authors like Sharon Kay Penman, Philipa Gregory, Margaret George and other authors who, in the pages of their thick books, liberally sprinkle historical fact amidst their own interpretations and seem to stay very true to the centuries about which they write. Godiva was nothing like those books. I enjoyed reading about the 11th century as there seems to be a dearth of novels set in that time period, but didn't like how it strayed from what I understand to be an accurate portrayal of the Lady Godiva legend. Lady Godiva herself felt unrealistically portrayed because of how "modern" she seemed and while sometimes this felt contrived, I couldn't help liking her, even while not approving of many of the things she did. It's almost like I was forced against my will to like this book. I do, and yet it's begrudging in some ways. It's almost embarrassing to admit it, LOL.

At any rate, I'm giving Godiva 4 stars for what it is, without comparing it to my usual fare. It's a book that knows it's not serious and is at times a little sophomoric but it kept me entertained and informed me about some real people and events I didn't know much about. As I said before, this is the perfect book to take with you to the beach for summertime escapist reading. It's easy to get through, witty and fun.

*Note: I recieved an ARC for free in exchange for my honest review.

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