04 April 2014

Book Review: A Shopkeeper's Daughter

Most Norwegians today are probably unaware of the romance that rocked their throne half a century ago, even though the lovers are now their consecrated King and Queen. It is hard to imagine that anyone ever thought of Queen Sonja as anything less than regal, and yet she was born merely the youngest daughter of a shopkeeper. Her prince's father, the government, the media, and the nation were shocked at the very idea that a woman with no noble pedigree could ever be royal.

Sonja Haraldsen and then Crown Prince Harald's turbulent but inspiring love story is captured in the brisk novel, "A Shopkeeper's Daughter," by newcomer Rachel Wisdom. Based on years of her own research the book follows the decade-long romance from their first meeting to their wedding. It even provides some imaginative insights into numerous other royal romances of the period, including Sofia and Juan Carlos of Spain, Anne-Marie and Constantine of Greece, Margrethe and Henrik of Denmark, Benedikte of Denmark and Richard of Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleberg, and the controversial marriages of Harald's sisters, Princess Ragnhild and Princess Astrid.

Wisdom opens her tale as many conventional romances begin:  with the heroine making a fool of herself in front of her prince. Sonja's natural manner and beauty captivate Harald. He, however, is caught between the desire of his heart and the overbearing commands of his father, who wishes him to marry the beautiful and eminently royal Princess Sophia of Greece. When Harald's diffidence and Sophia's allegedly poor English lead to a heart-wrenching misunderstanding, our heroine suffers one of many heartbreaks in the story.

At various times, Sonja is also bedeviled by snooping photographers, nasty editorial writers, and her naive trust in the people around her. For his part, Harald is caught between duty and shyness and his overwhelming love for Sonja. Both are guided throughout by their strong faith--but it is often challenged. In fact, they spend much of their time running away from and back to each other.

Wisdom nimbly tackles the heavy responsibility of telling a ten-year-long story with the brevity that a light romance requires. Her emphasis on the friendship that develops between Sonja and Harald's cousin, the artistically intellectual Margrethe of Denmark, lends an airiness and naturalness that the story needs to keep it from feeling too dark. There are moments of melodrama though in the depths of depression that Sonja reaches and the treatment of Princess Astrid's illness and engagement. I also wish that Harald didn't seem quite so paralyzed in his decision-making and that his father, King Olav, did not come off as quite such an ogre, but I am a huge fan of the real Olav and I accept that this is a fictionalized version of very complex, real people. No novel could possibly capture it all, especially when Wisdom's goal is to tell you a story about true love triumphing over adversity.  That, after all, is why we read romance novels, isn't it?

So, there must be an evil king, a broken-hearted princess, sniping ladies on dance floors whose snide comments are overheard, and an ever-supportive mother, in Dagny Haraldsen, whose own tragic backstory is far more awful than anything Sonja will ever endure as she waits for the one she loves.

Overall, it is a good read, a fun look inside royal romance at a time when they were changing from arranged marriages to love matches, and an entertaining insight into some royals you may not know much about. But, be sure to read the author's footnote as she shed's some light on when and where she took dramatic license. Buy "A Shopkeeper's Daughter"or get the Kindle edition.

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