McHugh’s writing is vivid, captivating, and filled with relevant detail while still showing the very human sides of her ‘characters.’ I do not envy writers who choose to write historical fiction because how do you narrow your focus of such long, vivid lives to something whole in a mere 400 pages? McHugh does her best, focusing much of the book during the main years of Vicky’s prime and her husband’s rise on the national stage, and then opens and closes the book with present tense written passages that show her son, Wilhelm, which she has a more fraught relationship within the book and his conflicted feelings about her at her death and forty years after that. My 4.5 stars is very much a rating reflecting as a historical novel about a famous person we don’t know as much about. (And I would say, many historical novels seem to still be centered around English-settings, so to find one that is featured outside the British Isles or America is somewhat rare. Seeing a new country setting was a bonus.)
I did wonder a number of times while reading the book, what would German readers think of this book? At times, I felt Vicky’s British upbringing and thus POV lens in seeing her new homeland and people to be rather one-sided. Her British upbringing was liberal and pro-constitution and pro-suffrage for the people. The country she married into was portrayed (rightly so, I imagine) as quite conservative, pro-monarchy and divine right, and preferred to repress the press which they considered too liberal. As a liberal person myself, I felt Vicky was quite right to be pro-people’s rights and pro-constitution, but I had to think, was this giving the impression that English (and American) ways of government were the right way and anything else is backward and unlearned? McHugh writes almost exclusively from Vicky’s POV (which is great--I’m not big into head hopping and it keeps the story very focused), but in doing so, it tends to feel at times a bit one-sided. McHugh was pulling her historical detail from Vicky’s personal writings--so it would be rather much to expect her to read personal writings of the other main characters (her son, Wilhelm; Otto von Bismark; or even her father-in-law, Wilhelm I) and synthesize them to make everything balanced and equitable.
Overall, I found the story to be more sad and/or bittersweet than uplifting or happy. (This too I think is probably in keeping with historical fiction. In real life, I imagine things are more sad than happy when you look at them all together.) In a sense, her love story is something I imagine I would shelve next to Nicholas Sparks--it’s a love story, but it’s not a romance. There is no happily ever after, but McHugh does do her best to end the book in a Happy For Now moment, a moment where Vicky feels hopeful for the future and confident with the man she loves by her side. (I, of course, went and Wikipedia’d Vicky and the lot and realized that was about the only spot McHugh could have ended the book on a happy note. A little research and you begin to understand how we got into WWI and WWII to begin with.) Alas that is the double-edged sword of historical fiction, a great book will have you searching to see how much of it is true and then learn the outcome of all the characters.
I applaud McHugh for introducing historical fiction readers to a country and era much less written about, giving us some background detail that sets the stage for so many popular historical fiction settings (WWI and WWII), and immersing us in the world of what it’s really like to be a princess and the life of a woman in the 19th century. I recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction (and don’t mind bittersweet as much as I do) and the Victorian era, and to those who enjoy women’s fiction because I think McHugh does a great job of presenting Vicky as a complicated person who was a wife and mother to two German leaders as well as the daughter of another world leader. I think we see Vicky grow--or at least try to grow--as a person. She is very young when she marries (17) and becomes a mother, and the book ends when she’s 30 or 31.
I kept looking for other books Clare McHugh had written, thinking her writing was such that I must have read something else by her: she was so good, she was so vivid, and I couldn’t wait to see what else I could read by her...but alas this is her debut. I’m certain it won’t be her last. I hope to read something new by her again soon.