It is something of a clichee that it is easier to write a scathing review than a glowing one.
If so, I would be in trouble, because "The Last Daughter" by Nicola Cornick, which will be published on 8 July, is a great book, about which I can only gush.
Like Cornick`s other books, this novel is a timeslip novel, with dual story lines - one taking place in the 15th century and following the life of Anne Lovell, wife of Francis, and the other taking place in modern day England, following the original character Serena.
Serena`s story is somewhat more complicated than Anne`s. While Anne`s story starts with her, age just five in 1465, being told her uncle has decided she is to marry the king`s ward, 8-year-old Francis Lovell, and then follows her through several important events of her life as baroness, as Francis`s wife, as a 15th century noblewoman, Serena`s story starts more tragically: a young woman at the end of her twenties, who, in her own words, runs "a bespoke historical tours company", she has lost her twin Caitlin when Caitlin vanished as a teenager. As the story begins, Caitlin`s body has just been found near Minster Lovell Hall, close to where she disappeared ten years before the story starts. Serena, who has often spent time in her grandparents` house near the manor as a teen, returns to the village to find out what happened to her sister. As she does so, she not only finds out that there are some very strange circumstances surrounding her sister`s death and burial, she also reconnects with old friends, in particular her old crush Jack, and finds out more about her own background than she bargained for when returning to Minster Lovell.
The thread tying the stories of Anne and Serena together - apart from a spoiler, which I will not give away in this review - is, in fact, the Legend of Mistletoe Bough, which is given a rather unexpected twist in this book, a twist that affects the lives of both Anne and Serena. For most of the book, the effect of this legend and this storyline on Serena seems more significant than on Anne, though at the end, it becomes clear that Anne is just as affected by it.
Since giving away more would be giving away key elements of the plot, I will instead simply say that it is a quite interesting storyline, and that the modern story surrounding Serena and the dashing Jack was an interesting one, and the characters sympathetic and relatable - no mean feat, seeing as how they had to vie for my attention with the storyline surrounding Anne and Francis.
This storyline is, of course, what attracted me most to this book, what was my main interest. Without beating around the bush: it was the very best portrayal of Anne Lovell I have ever seen anywhere. Respectful, engaging and relatable without giving her any 21st century traits to make her more attractive to the reader, this Anne shines, and she shines in a way close to what evidence suggests.
Anne`s story, narrated by her as an adult but starting in her childhood, was naturally familiar to me, but even so, the twists Cornick wove into it managed to surprise me. Her Anne is a curious child, who retains her curiosity into adulthood. She`s very loving and adores her husband, who loves her too, but she is also very stubborn. This combination of characteristics drives one twist in Anne`s story - and it is used to explain why Anne, unlike her mother and sister Elizabeth, did not choose to become Queen Anne Neville`s lady-in-waiting. Personally, I think that the most likely explanation is that she simply did not like Queen Anne, but Cornick chooses a more dramatic explanation - one that works very well in the story. I`m mentioning this to point out that even in instances when the narrative chooses a different conclusion to the one I come to, it worked well to engage me, and I do not simply praise this book because it echoed all my views.
The side characters are equally well-drawn as Anne is. Of particular note is Alice FitzHugh, Anne`s mother, who is a powerful if somewhat stern woman, who is all too aware of her important ancestry and struggles to bond with her headstrong daughter, though their relationship thaws somewhat when Anne realises her own similarity in many ways to her mother, particularly their shared stubbornness. It never becomes quite as warm as Anne`s relationship to her adored father, though, whose role in this book, as indeed in Anne`s real life, is sadly short.
Joan Lovell, whose part is equally regrettably short, is described, even as a child, as having "a brisk air of organisation" as well as a "slightly protective way she spoke about her brother" with, both touches I loved. Frideswide is intelligent and self-confident, which also seems very close to what evidence suggests.
And then, of course, there is my leading man himself. Francis. Anne`s adored husband. I will admit, I was slightly afraid that as the obvious love interest of one of the novel`s protagonists, he might be suffering a bit from what I call the Male Hero Protagonist syndrome - being too streamlined, too heroic, too flawless. I need not have worried; Cornick is too good a writer for this. Though he is the best of men in Anne`s eyes, he does have flaws, and he does have weaknesses. One touch about his characterisation I especially liked was that for all his dealing with the highest and mightiest of the realm, he was essentially an extremely private person, keeping his emotions close to his chest, and even Anne does not always know them. From what we know, this seems extremely realistic.
It was easy to tell that this novel was immaculately researched, and there were only very minor mistakes; that really I only noticed because I can recite the facts about Anne and her family in my sleep. I don`t think anyone but me would care, or even notice, that Anne`s sister Alice is said in passing to have been younger than her sister Elizabeth - and even I can`t say that it bothered me much. The great research of the book was noticable and made the book even more enjoyable for me.
Some of the things I enjoyed most about this book were
(1) that in her part of the story, it was Anne`s story. It was not her story but busy comparing her to another woman. She was the heroine. (Worth of note, looking at pretty much all other portrayals of Anne Lovell, ever, was that her cousin Anne Neville did not even really turn up. She was mentioned once or twice, as naturally she would be, but that was it. For once, she did not steal all of Anne`s storyline and thunder.)
(2) that Anne did not showcast any 21st century values, describing herself as a pawn who wants to marry for love, or any of these clichees. She knows what life is like, and she doesn`t think it very strange.
(3) the ending with Anne and Francis. No spoilers, but that was very touching, and makes me wish that it would/could have ended like that.
(4) though Anne does not have any children, there is no huge fuss made about that. She would love to have children, and this becomes a plotpoint, but there is no huge row made about it, it does not serve as a "but" to her and Francis`s marital happiness, and is not used to make her lesser.
Finally, mostly to be utterly honest and complete, here are some tiny points of criticism:
(1) The book is not long enough! I need more information on everyone - the dashing Jack in the modern part of the story, the tactless and understandably frustrated Inspector Litton (who I don`t think was meant to become an Ensemble Darkhorse but for me, absolutely did - I could understand her!), and Rebecca Shaw and Mr Anstruther. In the 15th century storyline, I would have loved to see more of Joan and Frideswide Lovell, to meet Richard FitzHugh, Anne`s brother to whom she was very close, her sister Elizabeth - everyone. I`d also have liked if the one miscarriage we have evidence Anne suffered had been mentioned, as surely it affected her.
(2) Francis was, in my opinion, somewhat too political before Richard III`s accession. It works very well in the context of the story, but ... well. I did say I would bring up some tiny points of criticism, and this is one. Francis was, even as Lord Chamberlain, pretty unpolitical.
And finally, the only thing I would say actually did slightly bother me, more than just me taking a note because I noticed something. It was nowhere near enough to spoil my enjoyment, but it is my only actual serious point of criticism:
(3) Edward Franke`s actions in 1488, concerning Anne Lovell, are ignored.
However, all in all, I can only say I wholeheartedly recommend this book. It is the only book featuring Anne and Francis Lovell prominently which I can absolutely, unreservedly recommend, and I do hope it does fabulously well and everyone buys it and meets the amazing Anne Lovell.