The Italian Woman: A Catherine DeMedici Novel

Written by Jean Plaidy
Review by Michael DiSchiavi

Set in 16th-century France, The Italian Woman depicts the transformation of Catherine DeMedici from a scorned and humiliated wife to a powerful and vindictive queen mother who will let no one stand in her way. Catherine’s human relationships, even with her own children, are nothing more than a means to an end to her. The one notable exception is her devoted and loving relationship with Henry, her favorite child. Catherine also has somewhat tender feelings for the Prince of Conde, brother-in-law of her archenemy, but she does not allow romantic inclinations to interfere with political ambitions.

Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, is Catherine’s enemy and foil. As a young princess, Jeanne wins a fight to marry the man she loves. Upon inheriting the throne, she appoints her husband king. Jeanne’s hardships are legion, but she undergoes them with Spartan endurance. Unlike Catherine, Jeanne is vicious only when circumstances force her hand.  She is a human being first, a queen second.

Love, lust, and ambition combine in this novel to create an intricately woven, well researched tale. As a protagonist, Catherine leaves something to be desired, since she is too one-dimensionally wicked to be sympathetic to a reader. For someone whose interest is in history told through human terms, it is Jeanne’s story which delivers humanity. As such, I found myself much more invested in Jeanne’s character than Catherine’s.

Catherine’s lack of sympathy aside, this is mostly a page-turner which vividly portrays a fascinating period in European history. The novel is recommended without reservation.