Julien is a young English scholar who goes to Sicily to be the envoy and secretary to Roger II, the twelfth century king who was able to unite the south of Italy, becoming involved with the papal politics of the age. On behalf of his employer, Julien, an admirer of Peter Abelard, is sent on a number of diplomatic missions to various parts of Europe. Along the way he meets Claire, and manages to marry her, against the odds.
Italy in the twelfth century isn’t a place or time I know much about, despite my interest in medieval Europe, so I was interested in picking up this novel. The book is at its best when sorting out the convoluted politics of the 1120s and ‘30s, but falters a bit when it comes to the fiction bits.
It was very hard for me to really believe Julien and Claire’s relationship; one moment they dislike each other and the next they’re declaring their undying love for one another. There’s also very little passion involved; most of the time, Julien seems to just go through the motions. I never got the feeling that he had much of a personality, and I wasn’t all that pleased at his laissez-faire attitude towards the other women he sleeps with. It also would have been great to have seen the teachings of Abelard worked in more. And the ending left a lot to be desired; I finished the book thinking, that’s it? In the end, I just didn’t care all that much about the characters or what happened to them.
However, the time period itself is fascinating; I never knew how integrated Eastern and Western cultures were in Sicily then, or that Roger had a harem! Later, I went on to read more about Roger, and he really was a fascinating guy. The papal politics of the middle ages generally aren’t what I’m interested in, but I really enjoyed watching the interplay between Roger and Innocent. I always like an historical novel that manages to educate its readers, and Rotondi does that well in The Garden of Persephone. I just wish his characters were as engaging as his setting.