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Carpe Librum

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Review: The Wheel of Fortune by Susan Howatch

Wheel of Fortune - Susan Howatch

Ah, how to rate a 1000+ page family saga that attempts to retell 14th century Plantagenet drama as a 20th century story . . . . All this royal eccentric behavior sure seems outrageous compared to Victorian and Edwardian standards!

The story is split into sections told by different members of the Godwin family to move it through the generations. We begin with Robert Godwin (one of many), who is our Edwardian Black Prince to Ginette, his Fair Maid of Kent. I especially enjoyed how Howatch creatively gave these characters personalities that suited the historical person they represented but fit into the more modern times and gave a modern twist to historical events. Instead of the kingdom of England, the Godwin's are masters of the estate of Oxmoon.

Once the story moved to Ginevra's point of view, I realized that Howatch also has a skill for creating a real person, who is one person inside and another to each person they encounter. As Ginette herself says, there's so much we don't know about those who are closest to us. Though the characters talk A LOT about sex, we also see that a marriage can be based on so many other things.

John, Robert's brother - yes there are also brothers Lionel, Edmund, and Thomas - is our next narrator. He struggles to be upstanding, to "do the done thing", and makes himself miserable in the process. The past creeps up to mess with poor John en force. Lion and Edmund fight in WWI, side by side with their French allies rather than against them like their historical counterparts.

You are seeing the pattern now.... Kester is the 20th century, ill-fated and eccentric Richard II. This character is cleverly written to sometimes gain the reader's sympathy and at other times make one want to kill him as much as half his family wanted to. Somehow both bold but never the perfect Godwin that he wishes to be, Kester is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, even years after his death.

When Harry takes over, the narration and Oxmoon, he and Kester have a battle royal. Through it all, each generation struggles with their desires versus what is expected, scandalous family history, and that sneaky insanity that tries to creep up on each of them.

Hal's story is the only part I could have done without. In his attempt to solve his family's mysteries, Hal becomes repetitive and a little bit of a bore. (Or maybe it was the more modern setting, 1966 and beyond, that I just wasn't as interested in.) I did enjoy the final twists and turns, but could have done without several recaps of what I had just read.

Overall, a unique take on my dear Plantagenets that had me captivated, made me laugh, and made me look at people a little bit differently. Themes of the Oxmoon estate, "The Blue Danube", and doing the done thing carry this story forth and unite the characters through beautiful prose and realistic characters. "You can't divide these unfortunate people neatly into heroes and villains - it's simply not that kind of story!" Don't be afraid of the number of pages. This novel is worth it.