The Wise Woman

Written by Philippa Gregory
Review by C.W. Gortner

In another reissue of her previously published work (this novel was originally released following the bestselling success of her Wideacre series), Ms. Gregory mines the Tudor era and presents an extremely dark, often disturbing portrait of sexual obsession, witchcraft and mayhem.

Alys is an orphaned novice nun who was raised as a wise woman. After she is burned out of her convent, she returns to a life of abject poverty and impotency until she sets her sights on the arrogant son of the local landowner, with horrific and ultimately tragic results. Taking the Henry VIII-Anne Boleyn-Catherine of Aragon triangle as a loose model—it’s no coincidence the novel takes place shortly before and after Anne Boleyn’s fall—Gregory clearly seeks to illustrate the helplessness of 16th-century women when confronted by the brutal superiority of men, as evinced by Alys’s inability to stem the circumstances that sweep her into a perverse and dangerous world in order to achieve her ends.

While the premise is interesting and replete with Gregory’s trademark penchant for visceral imagery and people willing to do anything for power, this novel falters in its unremitting catalog of unpleasantries. No one is particularly likeable or redeemable, and Alys’s single-mindedness blinds her to the fact that the object of her obsession seems scarcely worth the effort. Heavy-handed prose distills the shock value of some of the more graphic scenes, and there is a surprising paucity of the wit Ms. Gregory has amply shown in other books. Die-hard fans will no doubt flock to this offering while waiting for her newest novel, but those with queasy stomachs might consider reading her gorgeously rendered A Respectable Trade instead.