Wife After Wife
By Olivia Hayfield (Piatkus, $35)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian
If this was the beginning of summer, I'd urge as many people as I could to take this book to the beach, bach, boat, bush or backyard. But it's no longer the beginning of summer and this book's cover - with six champagne flutes, one with red lipstick around the rim, adorned with a red rose in front of a tropical-looking beach - might lull readers into thinking Wife After Wife is just a light holiday read.
Indeed, it is a near-perfect holiday read – a right royal romp, you might say – but its clever conceit, engaging writing, endearing characters and, ultimately, witty social commentary make it near-perfect for any other time of the year.
Olivia Hayfield, the pen name of British-born, Auckland-based author Sue Copsey, has taken the truth-is-stranger than fiction tale of Henry VIII and his six unfortunate wives and turned it into an epic contemporary saga with the love, sex, money, duplicity and double-dealing required of such a book.
But maybe because it's grounded in a real-life historical chapter in English history – and Hayfield has certainly done her research - it's also whip-smart, with enough lightly written observations of modern life to make it relatable and a good deal more intelligent than books with images of lipstick-stained champagne glasses on the cover tend to be.
Harry Rose is a charismatic charmer with looks, poise, elegance and a position as the head of a burgeoning media empire (what else would it be?). The story opens in 2018 when Harry, still enigmatic but older, fatter and suffering the long-term pain of leg injury after crashing a sports car, is surveying the Thames from the window of his corporate tower and wrestling with his conscience.
"The bottom line was, he'd argued with his conscience and after some fairly intense, battles, had declared it clear."
Or has he really?
Quickly, it's back to 1985, when he's married to Katie Paragon, the former girlfriend of his deceased older brother and all looks well in the couple's lives. But then comes the battle with infertility, the pull of work when the homelife needs attention. Katie turns to her Catholic faith; Harry stumbles into the arms of other women. One way or another, it's quite familiar even when Harry meets ice-cool designer Ana Lyeborn and decides to divorce Katie, who won't go easily.
It's a delight to see how Hayfield deals with the situations Henry VIII faced, which, of course, can't unfold now as they did back in the 16th century. Instead, she brings in present-day scenarios that allow her to write humorously and, sometimes, poignantly about the breakdown of relationships, ambition and power, the growth of the online world, celebratory culture and reality television, media and #metoo.
Her quick dispatching of fourth wife, Anki, from Cleveland, Ohio (Anne of Cleves) is adroit and apt; how Caitlyn Howe (Catherine Howard) meets her fate is heart-breaking and could be ripped – along with the Howe family's reaction – from the clickbait headlines of an online tabloid news site. The introduction of other historical characters – Sir Thomas Moore as Terri Robbins-Moore, a female magazine editor – is also well done and because Hayfield has supplied brief introductions at the front and back of the book to the characters and their historic equivalents, you don't need a history degree to work out who's who.