The Sharp Hook of Love
Pierre Abélard and Héloïse d’Argenteuil’s tragic 12th-century Parisian romance is one of the most famous real love affairs in history. Even so, it’s a difficult story to transmute into a historical novel. Its bleak elements are too unforgiving: medieval misogyny, castration, the religious vows Héloïse was forced to take, her giving up her baby, the betrayed trust when a teacher beds his student, and Abélard’s decades of pious remorse.
Thankfully Sherry Jones has taken this dark tale and brought it to pulsing, appealing life. We see the brilliant, charismatic, and famous philosopher Abélard seeking out the convent-raised, illegitimate Héloïse because of her own reputation as a marvel of beauty and learning. Her guardian uncle, Canon Fulbert, is almost immediately unlikable, and yet he’s not a two-dimensional villain. The suspense is nearly unbearable after Abélard moves into Canon Fulbert’s household and the couple begins spending more time making love than studying. I was on tenterhooks worrying about Fulbert finding them. They couldn’t stop themselves, having been “pierced by the sharp hook of love,” as the real Héloïse wrote.
Beyond her piercing, Héloïse longs to learn more about her dead mother, who gave Héloïse up to be raised in a convent. And who was her father? Historic details and glimpses of court intrigues are also wonderful.
I loved this novel. Héloïse’s story isn’t just sorrow and passion but also strength and inspiration. Jones writes with a sure flow and style that pleases but never gets in the way of her story. She used 113 newly discovered letters between the lovers in researching this book (before, there had just been eight). That material surely helped bring depth to her chapters. Recommended – along with a pilgrimage to the lovers’ shared tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris!