I finished this book earlier today. It was a rather slow read, I had to take a break in the middle and read my last book!
Portrait of an Unknown Woman was a mediocre read. It had all of the elements of a good historical fiction novel, but it was never able to bring it all together to make a great novel. There were certain flaws with the plot that just did it in for me.
First an overview of the plot. The book is set during the reign of King Henry VIII at just about the time that he discards Queen Catherine and marries Anne Bolyen. The basic timeline is framed by Hans Holbein painting a picture of the Thomas More family at the beginning of the book and his painting of a second picture of the family five years at the end of the book. The main character is Meg Giggs the adopted daughter of Thomas More. The Thomas More family is a highly educated family and the daughters are well known during the time for their higher learning. Meg is interested in medicine. She falls in love and marries John Clement, the family's old tudor, who is also a doctor. But Meg also has feelings for Hans Holbein. Many changes happen to the family during the five year period at Thomas More becomes the Chancellor of England and stays firm to the Catholic faith during the time of reformation. Also many family secrets come out that threaten to destroy Meg's happiness.
I think the true strengths of the book lie in the telling of how the changes brought about by the reformation affected the common people in England. The tales of religious strive were riviting and throught provoking to me. Especially the disconnect between the monarchy and the common people. I also enjoyed the different angle of looking at the Tudor dynasty. I'm so used to reading books about Henry VIII's Queens, it was nice to read about other people living through the times and to learn more about Thomas More.
Although I enjoyed the strengths of the book, there were many weaknesses. The main weakness was Meg herself. She never really felt like a true three-dimensional character to me . . . and I didn't find her that likable or relatable. Both of her romances felt very forced. Her marriage to John Clement was artificially happy and then not working for no good reason. Her love affair with Hans Holbein just seemed weird to me. Her characterization just made me wonder what the two men even saw in her! Also John Clement's "secret" did not have enough background to even make me think it would be plausible.
The last chapter was a very good conclusion to the book and I enjoyed it. If only the middle of the book would have been as good as the beginning or the end, it would have been a lot better novel.
Read it if you are looking for a different angle on the King Henry VIII time period, but expect it to be a bit slower of a read.