Read by Adjoa Andoh
Published September 2021 by Penguin Publishing Group
Publisher's Summary:Cast out of the royal court by Eleanor of Aquitaine, deemed too coarse and rough-hewn for marriage or courtly life, seventeen-year-old Marie de France is sent to England to be the new prioress of an impoverished abbey, its nuns on the brink of starvation and beset by disease.
At first taken aback by the severity of her new life, Marie finds focus and love in collective life with her singular and mercurial sisters. In this crucible, Marie steadily supplants her desire for family, for her homeland, for the passions of her youth with something new to her: devotion to her sisters, and a conviction in her own divine visions. Marie, born the last in a long line of women warriors and crusaders, is determined to chart a bold new course for the women she now leads and protects. But in a world that is shifting and corroding in frightening ways, one that can never reconcile itself with her existence, will the sheer force of Marie’s vision be bulwark enough?
Desperately in love with Eleanor, a woman with whom she will spend the rest of her life in a battle of wits with, Marie is desolate when Eleanor sends her away. Not just away but to a desperately poor abbey in England where there is a better than average chance that she will perish from disease or starvation. Far taller than any other woman in the abbey, clothes have to be cobbled together for Marie, the other nuns mock her, and she struggles to find her way. Until she remembers that she is the prioress of the abbey and, as such, holds some power. Taking matters into her own hands, she soon has the people living on the land of the abbey paying their dues to the abbey, saving the women from starvation. She further convinces the women of the abbey to believe in her power by reallocating jobs, assigning each woman to the task she is best suited for, not the least which had been the way before she arrived.
As the abbey begins to thrive, so does Marie. She gains greater and greater power and is better and better able to manipulate the people in charge so that she can protect the women in her charge. Over the decades Marie will become the venerated Abbess of a community she is surprised to find herself caring very much about, to the point she would defy the church.
I didn't even look to see what this book was about when I checked it out from the library. I had been so impressed with Groff's Fates and Furies that I was eager to read more of her work. While I had no idea what this book was about, going in, I certainly was not expecting historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. But in Groff's hands, the line between the Middle Ages and current time was blurred considerably. This is a book about a group of women who take their lives into their own hands, who rule themselves, who demand more from the men who would oversee them. It is a book about friendship, courage, faith, hubris, and love in so many forms. As Marie grows to find love for each of her charges, so do readers, as we grow to understand each of the many women who have devoted their lives to the abbey and, eventually, their abbess. She is a complicated woman, a woman who is strong, intelligent, fierce, and devoted but also often judgmental and arrogant and mean.
Here is a book that I am certain I would have liked a great deal had I read it in print. But I cannot recommend the audiobook version highly enough; Adjoa Andoh takes the story to an entirely different level. Her voice is wonderful; but, more importantly, her ability to give each of the dozens of female characters unique voices is masterful. What's more, she is able to "age" Marie's voice in a way that I didn't even realize was happening it was so organic.