- Paperback: 475 pages
- Publisher: William Morrow & Company; Reprint edition (2 March 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061689858
- ISBN-13: 978-0061689857
- Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 2 x 20.3 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 408 g
- Customer Reviews: 54 customer ratings
Figures in Silk Paperback – 2 March 2010
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"Describe(s) late medieval trade and artisanship in fascinating detail. Stands out for its engrossing storytelling, multidimensional characters, and intriguing interpretation of everyone's favorite love-him-or-hate-him monarch, Richard III."--Booklist
"Readers of historical fiction will be pleased with Bennett's sure-handed storytelling."--Publishers Weekly
"A richly textured historical novel."--The Times (London)
"A splendid blend of romance and history."--BookPleasures.com
"Vanora Bennett knows what drives her characters, both fictional and historical, and they seem as real and easy to relate to as your next-door neighbor. Bennett's medieval England comes alive in ways a reader can immediately relate to, even while being transported away from the modern world."--Christian Science Monitor
About the Author
Vanora Bennett is the author of two acclaimed novels, Portrait of an Unknown Woman and Figures in Silk, and an award-winning journalist. She has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The Times (London), and the BBC. She lives in North London with her husband and two children.
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Top international reviews
There are many historical fictions that recount the noble lives of the era of pre Renaissance England, this book delves into the life of the emerging middle class, and specifically, the daughter of a silk merchant who seeks to escape the societal norms of the day.
Isabel had her life planned out; her father, however, had a different plan. She wanted to continue as she had been, the help mate of her successful father in his cloth business. She had learned the business well under his tutelage following her mother's death. Her father, however, knew that an unmarried woman would never be accepted by the all important Guild, and he arranged a marriage of his only child to the son of the successful competitor.
A chance meeting with a stranger prior to her reluctant wedding, changes Isbel's life and set her unknowingly into the intrigues of the court of the new Plantagenet King Edward IV.
The plot is lively and the ending delightful. Beautifully developed characters and deeply researched records bring to life this story of love, loss, and redemption. Vania Bennett has earned herself a place in my list of favorite historical fiction authors.
The novel begins with the marriage of the two daughters of one of those merchants, a mercer named John Lambert. The elder, Jane, is marrying Will Shore, a goldsmith. The younger (apparently a fictional creation), Isabel, is to wed Thomas Claver, son of a silkwoman. And it's Isabel who is at the heart of Bennett's tale, as we follow her determined efforts to build a life for herself as not just a merchant of silk goods but as a silk weaver, stealing the secrets of the trade from the Italian city states and trying to set up the first English silk manufacturing business next door to William Caxton's printing business in Westminster. This part of the tale is lively and compelling enough to stand in its own right.
But... This being historical fiction, Bennett introduces Isabel to young Richard of Gloucester. As her elder sister becomes the acknowledged mistress of Edward IV, Isabel becomes the secret lover of the future Richard III. Bennett's efforts to make sense of Richard's actions on the death of his elder brother are an intriguing alternative to the two most commonly-presented alternatives (Richard as manipulative, sly and power-hungry, or Richard as driven by duty and concern for the realm). And the affair does bring her into closer contact with the broader political picture of the time, a period during which London merchants feared being plunged back into the chaos of the Wars of the Roses which they believed had ended back in 1471. Still, it sometimes feels as if that particular plot device is too much of a stretch -- and an unnecessary one, given Jane's connection to several leading court figures of the time.
There are some minor oddities and discrepancies that jumped out at me here. I had always read that Elizabeth Woodville was blonde; here, Bennett describes her as a red-head? The duchy of Brittany is misspelled repeatedly as Britanny, while the duke of Clarence's death seems to have moved up several years, according to the chronology implied by the statements of Bennett's characters. But relative to the author's ability to weave together fact and fiction so effortlessly and to make vivid the still relatively obscure lives of ordinary citizens of the 15th century, these feel like quibbles.
This isn't as good a book as Bennett's debut Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel , which was more carefully plotted and written. But that's not unusual in second books -- I often wonder if novelists, taken by surprise at the runaway success of a first book over which they have slaved for years, aren't doomed to produce relatively disappointing second books, simply because they are under pressure to follow up that success quickly with something they haven't devoted as much thought or time to. Still, Bennett's second novel stands head and shoulders above much of the recent fiction devoted to this period, and I look forward to her third book, scheduled for release in a month or two in the UK. And yes, I will be ordering it from Amazon.co.uk, rather than waiting a year for it to show up here!
I'm not going to summarize this book since it's already been done here many times, but let me rattle off just a few reasons why I'm giving this only two stars.
1. The synopsis says this is about two sisters, Isabel and Jane...WRONG! About 95% of the story is about Isabel and her silk weaving job, and only about 5% is focused on Jane (who, in my opinion, seemed to have the more interesting story). I knew there was a lot of focus on silk in this story (hello, the title!), I just wasn't expecting THIS much. While the author clearly developed a sincere appreciation for the craft, I found myself bored with all the 'shop talk'.
2. I found it VERY hard to believe that Isabel, who was portrayed as an intelligent, sharp business woman, who had a knack for sniffing out the honest merchants in her field, would be so easily duped by Dickon. I know she loved him, but really? In the 10+ years she spent as his mistress, she never ONCE opened her eyes to his blatant lies? And what's worse, when she DID find out he had lied, she didn't care! After all he did to her sister, I found it extremely distasteful that she would continue to carry on with him, and I pretty much stopped caring about her at that point.
3. Now, this may just be me being nit-picky, but I've read a lot of books from this era (15th/16th century), and I was a bit perplexed as to how both Jane (mistress to King Edward IV) and Isabel (Mistress to Richard III), were able to carry on with these men for over 10 YEARS, and not ONCE end up pregnant? Yet, when Jane marries and settles down, BAM!, she's pregnant within the year. It was just MUCH too convenient for me. There was no birth control back then, and mistresses usually bore numerous illegitimate children by their lovers. However Jane and Isabel seemed to have lucked out there...hmmmm. Not very authentic, especially given just how long they carried on their relationships.
I could go on, but I suppose I'll leave it at that. I gave it two stars and not one because I did finish the book, so that's something, and I did enjoy some parts of the story, such as the setting, the princesses and the battle for the throne...and anything involving Jane (it's really a shame she wasn't given a bigger part). Overall though, I'd have to recommend skipping this. It's just not much of a page-turner, and while Isabel started out with much promise, her character became so flawed that I could barley stand to read about her anymore.