A CONSTANT HEART marks Christy Award finalist Siri Mitchell's foray into the historical fiction genre, and it's in this genre that her strengths as a writer come together in one satisfying package. She tells a compelling, exquisitely detailed story populated by well-drawn characters whose dialogue, motivation and actions ring true to the time period --- in this case, the reign of Elizabeth I.
The main storyline begins with the impending marriage of the Earl of Lytham. Lytham has every intention to promote himself to a place of prominence in the queen's court. Betrayed by his first wife, he has that marriage annulled and chooses as his second wife Marget Barnardsen, a knight's daughter whose dowry will allow him to buy an estate that he believes rightfully belongs to him. But once he sets eyes on Marget, his eagerness to marry her evaporates. Marget is exceedingly beautiful, and his first marriage confirmed to Lytham that beauty equals betrayal.
But Lytham's desire to regain his family's estate wins out, and he marries Marget against his better wishes. What ensues is a delicate dance that all must perform if they are to have any hope of gaining, or maintaining, the queen's good graces. The queen clearly disdains Marget, and Lytham must wage an uphill battle to overcome the misfortune his marriage has brought him. In Mitchell's skillful hands, the story becomes an intricately woven tale involving duplicity, suspicion and misguided trust --- as well as the high cost of fidelity, loyalty and genuine love.
One of the hallmarks of good historical fiction is characters who behave according to the conventions of the time, and that means today's readers need to shed their modern sensibilities in order to understand why those characters do what they do. Writers need to do the same, and Mitchell excels at keeping Lytham and Marget true to the era in which they lived. The easy route, for example, would have been to portray Marget as the headstrong, willful, stereotypical heroine that appears in so much historical --- and contemporary --- fiction. But Mitchell allows Marget to do what the wife of an earl would have done at the time, which was to reinvent herself so she would fit in with the other ladies of the court to further her husband's career and perhaps win the queen's favor for herself.
Part of that reinvention involved "painting" her face with lead-based makeup that in reality proved to be the death of some women in that era, including, it is speculated, Queen Elizabeth I. The queen considered herself to be the epitome of beauty, so the ladies of the court emulated her by applying paint to their faces, frizzing their hair and dyeing it red, and copying her fashion style. Marget followed suit, with serious consequences. Mitchell deftly handles this subtle commentary on the sometimes dangerous lengths to which people will go in order to fit in with their peers.
Mitchell also avoids one temptation to which all too many historical fiction writers succumb: inserting irrelevant or poorly placed details about a specific time period in order to lend historical authenticity to the story. Mitchell is a master at seamlessly integrating relevant historical details; here she proves herself to be as adept at researching as she is at writing.
Though A CONSTANT HEART is an engaging, well-written novel, it's not without its problems. It's told in first person, from the perspectives of both Lytham and Marget, and the switch from one point of view to another is often jarring and confusing. That could have been easily avoided had the page designer used a more prominent dividing mark to separate the two points of view. I found myself having to re-read too many paragraphs before I thought to look back and search for that minuscule mark.
A lesser problem is the all-too-quick wrap-up at the end. In one paragraph, Marget sums up both their immediate plans and their long-range future. I actually turned the page, hoping that the story hadn't ended so abruptly but knowing full well that it had.
Those concerns, though, take a backseat to the exceptional overall quality of the novel. Mitchell has clearly hit her stride with A CONSTANT HEART.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on November 13, 2011