Molly GreeleyMar 8, 2023
William Morrow 2023
Once in a while, a novel comes along that is both different and special. Marvelous (William Morrow, 2023) is such a book. Retellings of fairy tales are not unusual, and some of them are quite good. But here Molly Greeley explores the real-life story that gave rise to one of the best-loved tales, “Beauty and the Beast.” In doing so, she raises issues of inclusion, trust, acceptance, the effects of trauma, and basic humanity—all in a gentle, non-preachy way.
Pedro Gonzales, later known as Petrus Gonsalvus or Pierre Sauvage (Pierre the Savage, which itself says a great deal about other people’s views of him), was born on Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, around 1537. We know from early on that he was abandoned by his mother as an infant, presumably because he was born covered in hair—a rare genetic condition that was seen at the time as evidence that a child was the spawn of a devil. His adoptive mother, Isabel, belongs to the indigenous people of Tenerife, the Guanche, whose culture and religion have been all but obliterated by the conquering Spaniards. So she and her son, Manuel, are also, in a sense, outcasts.
When Pedro is around ten, pirates kidnap him, and he winds up at the court of the French King Henri II and Henri’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Henri, charmed by Pedro’s combination of strangeness and acumen, takes the child under his wing and gives him a royal education, as well as financial support. But the effects of Pedro’s abandonment, early mistreatment, and capture—heightened by the suspicion and disrespect of his fellow nobles, most of whom see him as little better than a trained monkey—leave him feeling perennially unsure of himself.
When Catherine de’ Medici arranges his marriage to her namesake, the beautiful sixteen-year-old daughter of a merchant who has fallen on hard times, Pedro has no idea how to talk to this girl who is half his age. Her discomfort—how many teenage girls want to marry, sight unseen, a taciturn man in his mid-thirties who looks like a Wookie?—plays into Petrus’s fears, and the newlywed couple struggles to find a connection. But when fate deals Catherine a hand she has both anticipated and feared, she rises to the challenge, and Pedro begins to realize that she is nothing like the mother he lost.
Greeley does a great job in conveying the sensory experience of her two leads and, by alternating Pedro’s view with Catherine’s, charting their individual growth, which in turn creates a credible portrayal of their developing relationship. If you love books focused on family and identity, as well as stories set just a little off the beaten path, this is definitely a novel for you.
Molly Greeley is the author of The Clergyman’s Wife and The Heiress. Marvelous is her latest novel.
C. P. Lesley is the author of two historical fiction series set during the childhood of Ivan the Terrible and three other novels. Her latest book, Song of the Storyteller, appeared in January 2023.