cover image Earthly Joys

Earthly Joys

Philippa Gregory. St. Martin's Press, $25.95 (448pp) ISBN 978-0-312-19262-4

The order of a 17th-century English garden stands in contradiction to the dissolution of a plague- and hunger-ridden land ruled by greedy Stuart kings and immoral courtiers. Gregory's (Wideacre) latest historical novel follows gardener John Tradescant, whose life entwines with the chaotic history of his time. Tradescant is in his 30s when he goes to work for King James's trusted adviser Robert Cecil, then observes the degradation as power passes from the honorable Cecil to the seductive, sexually cynical Duke of Buckingham. Tradescant's wife and son are suspicious of the pro-Catholic views of the court. Puritanical by nature, they conduct an ongoing argument with John about who owes allegiance where. The need for bright perfection--a garden where nothing fades or dies--requires enormous labor, a visibly costly attempt to impose decorative order on wilderness. For the gardener, the question of loyalty is initially simple, but his family is appalled by court excesses as people are taxed and slowly starved. The population grows more restive as court arrogance increases. This is a powerful parable for any period of history, but here the details of home life, travel and the attitudes toward human worth make it a potent statement about Stuart absolutism, pre-Restoration chaos and an empire on the cusp of colonization and trade. Gregory's skills as a storyteller give these issues a human focus and result in an absorbing narrative. (Sept.) FYI: The story of the Tradescant family will continue in a sequel.