Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Review: The Countess by Rebecca Johns

True story: One day my friend Dori and I were texting back and forth about Neil Gaiman and vampires and I don't know what else, when I cracked a joke about Catherine de'Medici and Elizabeth Bathory being vampires and best friends... forever. We were both taken with the idea, and the jokes continued until Dori was so inspired, she began writing a novel about Cat, Liz, and their famous friends. According to Dori, five-hundred years after her disastrous marriage to Henry II, jealous Cat is still supping on young women who remind her of her husband's mistresses. And in 1820 or so Liz gladly turned Lord Byron into a vamp because "George" was so much fun. Oh yeah, and Liz and Cat might've been responsible for those rumors that Anastasia survived the Bolshevik revolution.

Dori has brought her characters to life so vividly, I always look forward to hearing about the newest adventures she's written for them. It's an over-the-top soap opera for literature lovers and history buffs. So when Dori gave me this novelization of Elizabeth Bathory's life for Christmas, I was touched because it perfectly represents our friendship. And it was good!

Novels with unreliable narrators are always a puzzle. Is the storyteller crazy, or lying, or both? The truth is somewhere in there, but where? The story begins with Elizabeth imprisoned in a tower for the murders of dozens of young female servants, and Elizabeth tells her life story through her letters to her son. At first, Elizabeth seems like a sane, normal woman under an unusual amount of pressure. Singlehandedly managing half a dozen estates while your husband is away fighting the Turks ain't easy, y'all.

But as the story progresses, Elizabeth's moral compass disappears, her sense of self-importance becomes cartoonishly inflated, and she is slowly revealed to be frighteningly crazy. It's a slow burn, and this book takes patience, but it's a fascinating psychological portrait.

I didn't sympathize with Elizabeth, but I understood how she became a monster. When she was a child, her mother taught her that a woman's happiness can only be achieved by making a man fall madly in love. At age 14, Elizabeth was married off to a man who ignored her for ten years while he waged war. When he occasionally came home, he slept with servant girls more often than he slept with her. Elizabeth agonized over her failure to secure his attention, and she took out her frustration on the servants, meting out harsh punishments to the girls who caught her husband's eye. Imagine public nudity, honey, and stinging insects. Yeah, it's CRAYCRAY.

When Elizabeth's husband observes her doling out an especially harsh punishment, he takes notice of her for the first time. After ten years of marriage, they finally bond over a shared penchant for sadism. When he offers to show her his own punishment techniques, he sounds as if he's asking her on a date. It's SICK, but Elizabeth describes the incident as if it's romantic. Girl is kuh-RAY-zee.

Elizabeth tells herself she's punishing the young women to keep them from stealing and screwing around with the stable boys. But she likes it. And the first time Elizabeth accidentally goes too far and beats a girl to death, she sleeps well and feels wonderful the next day. *shudder* Flash forward a few years, and every time Elizabeth experiences a setback or embarrassment, she beats a few servant girls to death to regain her composure and sense of control.

Even then, though, she thinks she is a benevolent mistress because she gives the girls a place to work, a warm fire by which to sleep, and food to eat. Her delusions of grandeur and innocence are fascinating, and the book ends satisfyingly: with Elizabeth punished like a common criminal.

Except for one incident, the violent episodes aren't described in detail, so the book is creepy but not too graphic. The tension develops slowly, so impatient readers would do well to skip this book. But if you enjoy history, a glimpse into feudal life, and psychological tension, I recommend it. Thank you, Dori!

8 comments:

  1. This is my favorite part: "When Elizabeth's husband observes her doling out an especially harsh punishment, he takes notice of her for the first time. After ten years of marriage, they finally bond over a shared penchant for sadism. When he offers to show her his own punishment techniques, he sounds as if he's asking her on a date. It's SICK, but Elizabeth describes the incident as if it's romantic. Girl is kuh-RAY-zee."

    Thanks for the review--it's great to know there are such thoughtful readers out there.

    P.S. love the blog!

    Rebecca Johns

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  2. I'm giddy to know that you read the review and peeked at the blog-- thank you so much! I just hope the review does the book justice; I enjoyed it so much.

    How did you decide to write about Elizabeth Bathory? I've been interested in her life since I was a young girl. I've always supposed that she had a male serial killer in her household, unbeknownst to her, and she was blamed for what he did because it was politically convenient to have her out of the way. Thank you for taking the time to present her in a new way.

    What are you working on now? I always look froward to a thoughtfully written, carefully researched historical novel!

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  3. Thank you Jen for suggesting this book. I love historical fiction and started this last night, and it drew me in right away.
    And thank YOU, Ms Johns, because a book that is hard to put down is a wonderful thing.

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    1. I'm so glad you're liking it, Mom!
      (Mom, this IS you... right?)

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    2. That would be me. :)

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  4. Hi again Jen. To answer your question, I was looking for something really different from my first book, which (to be honest) nobody read. When I first heard about Bathory I was horrified, of course, but the more I read about her the more it seemed a lot of what we'd read and been told had possibly been made up or exaggerated, especially because there was nothing out there that was in her point of view. I love first-person novels where you don't know whether to trust the narrator or not. So I gave it a shot, and tried out the voice for the first chapter--and that's when I knew I had to do it.

    I don't know that I'll do historical fiction again right away. Both my first two books have a hist-fic angle, and as much as I love history, I love trying my hand at new things even more. The new book is set in contemporary Illinois, where I grew up...but let's just say there's a touch of the supernatural in it this time.

    And thank YOU, Jen's mom, for reading. We don't take our readers lightly.
    Rebecca

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    1. And where in Illinois, Ms Johns? Just asking as I we (Jen and I) are Illinoisians, and I am a U of I girl
      Jens Mom

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  5. I'm a bit late to this review, but you're welcome :-).

    Bathory's penchant for sadism is probably my favorite thing. It's what makes her such a prime candidate for vampire stories. When I realized that such a book existed, I knew you'd get a kick out of it, since you identify with my fictional Bette so much.

    I know I haven't texted you story updates in a while, but I've been working on expanding what I already have. I do think about Cat and Bette daily, so they're doing things that just haven't made it to paper.

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P.S. All trolls will be fed to the bookworms.