Juana of Castile is a young girl at the Spanish court, secure in the fact that she will never inherit the crown, as well as in her parents’ marriage and love for one another. When her world view is suddenly shattered, her romantic ideals disappear --- especially those of marriage (her parents’ specifically), and it leaves her with a more pragmatic view of life. She now understands that love and marriage are not one in the same, and begins to see all the more clearly where her life will lead and what it will be like. When Juana’s marriage to Philip I, the Duke of Burgundy, is announced, she makes her way to a foreign country with little preparation and an even smaller hope of finding happiness.
"Cullen deftly mixes fact and fiction, creating a portrait of a woman marked as mad but with a husband who fits the description better."
Juana and Philip’s first meeting is odd. While not the most reassuring start, it isn’t as bad as Juana imagined. The first few years of their marriage are full of lust, if not necessarily love, and the two young and naive rulers stumble toward a future she never imagined --- the crown of Spain. With every relationship in her life eroding --- her mother’s silence, her husband’s strange behavior, and courtiers deserting her --- Juana struggles to control her jealous feelings for Philip as well as awful thoughts toward a mother who has grown cold. Philip becomes tortuous, holding her at arm’s length, taunting her, playing with her emotions, and doing all he can to make her doubt herself. Her children are her only happiness.
Philip’s plans to steal the Spanish crown become clear to Juana all too late. When she finally begins to fathom his cruelty, both physically and mentally, her reaction is long overdue. Unfortunately, he has convinced too many of her perceived incompetence, and Juana can do nothing to dispel the rumors or fight back. Everyone now sees her as a lovesick, heartbroken and mad woman incapable of caring for herself and certainly not the Spanish empire.
Juana does not start out as a particularly sympathetic character. She has dropped, at a young age, all the pretentions of happiness, knowing with clarity that her life is not truly her own. It’s because of this attitude that you expect her to see Philip for what he is --- a childish man who believes he can take all he wants without consequences. His attitude and cruelty toward her are evident rather early on in the marriage, but she becomes so wrapped up in trying to keep him happy that she overlooks clear warnings from family and friends. What I found most astonishing was Juana’s own inability to use the strong women present in her life, preferring to placate her husband to keep his rather unpredictable behavior on an even keel. I wanted to shake her, open her eyes and take control of her life in some way.
Having read another Lynn Cullen book, THE CREATION OF EVE, I knew to expect interesting female characters, even if this latest one wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. But this may be a case of me trying to apply my modern view of things to a historically-based story. Juana is a smart person but sadly understands what’s happening in her life all too late to change anything. You do feel for her, and even at times when I was frustrated by how poorly she was dealing with her husband, I couldn’t walk away. I needed to know how her story would end and what she would do.
Cullen deftly mixes fact and fiction, creating a portrait of a woman marked as mad but with a husband who fits the description better. It’s told very effectively, eliciting strong emotions and in the process telling a wonderful story.
Reviewed by Amy Gwiazdowski on August 4, 2011