The Witch of Cologne has a really awful cover. I actually resisted buying/borrowing it for a while, because the cover featured a woman in an awkwardly unlaced corset and sporting the 16th century equivalent of bed-head. but really now… Kushiel’s Dart had as raunchy a cover, and it was great fun, so I finally was all, fine, fine, because the siren call of a thoroughly researched historical romance proved impossible to resist.
Oh but dear God, I wish I HAD. Witch had some solid history. The timeline was a bit muddled, and there were a few serious anachronisms, but overall, it was one of those solidly researched works of fiction that makes you want to get thyself to a library. I really just had a problem with the characterization, and the actual plot.
Now, by a problem with the “characterization,” I clearly mean the lack thereof. Ruth, a Jewish midwife and the witch in question, had none. I mean, we know she’s rebellious, witty, and smart, as well as a fantastic midwife, but mostly because other people say so. She does deliver a baby in the first chapter (I was squeamish and had to hide the book for a little bit), but after that, we generally don’t hear a lot of the day-to-day details of midwifery and nursing, like how one negotiates fees for a service whose difficulty you can’t necessarily gauge in advance. Also, she’s a JEWISH WOMAN in a CHRISTIAN PATRIARCHAL WORLD, in a book whose plot hinges on both anti-Semitism and sexism. Even though she’s grown up in this society where women are constantly in danger, and where she’s especially vulnerable as a Jewish woman, she herself is not described as suffering any emotional ramifications from that. Seriously? Within the first fifty pages, she is transported in a super-secret-cart to the Christian part of town, delivers a healthy miracle baby, is smuggled back to the Jewish section of town,* where she’s been hated since she returned from Amsterdam with her newfangled birthing knowledge and her refusal to be a good Jewish woman and get freakin’ married. Instead of spending a moment going, “Good goddamn, I’m tired, or, “Ugh, I wish that last bit of amniotic fluid hadn’t gotten all over my tippet,” she instead has a bath, where she marvels at how great her virginal body is, and how it’s completely different from the “fertile ripeness” of her clients. We all have moments we feel hot, but generally not after a night like she was describing. That especially bothered me, because as blindingly intelligent sexy female who’s a member of a disenfranchised ethnic group, I’ve really been there… all up in the master’s house trying to use the master’s tools, and you know, when I left I didn’t feel sexy… I felt used and tired. I wanted a bath, but for the quiet and the clean, not for the auto-eroticism. That REALLY bothered me, because I felt like it demonstrated the author’s complete lack of empathy for that character’s social position.
But! Back to the plot. An evil inquisitor had fallen in lust with Ruth’s mom (I did like that the author made no attempt to make this into an unrequited love. Solitario was a creepy stalker-almost-rapist, and she didn’t try to veil that) and had vowed to eliminate all of the Navarro line. He accuses Ruth of witchcraft, and is able to drum up a pretty good case, until Detlef (a young Catholic priest who just needs some inspiration to turn away from his decadent lose of faith as embodied in his love affair with a chubby burgher’s wife*) swoops in and saves the day. After a series of hilarious events (Ruth saves Ferdinand of Spain (yup, that one), there’s a pogrom, everyone gets the bubonic plague, and Ruth has Detlaf’s baby), Ruth and Detlaf end up in the Netherlands, where they then convert to Protestantism.
There’s some other stuff that happens (some interesting passages re: Lilith and some great representations of historically appropriate sex (bush for everyone! ) ) but I can’t convey to you how un-engaging I found large chunks of the plot. I really wanted the characters to stop striking poses while being unutterably beautiful and actually, say, do things, possibly while in character.
* Along with her maid Miriam, who is later gang-raped and goes mad because of this. Good times. Ruth, thankfully, is quite sensible, and doesn’t let her nutty, unmarriageable maid bring her down.
*I mention this because Lerner was making a vaguely misogynistic/fat-phobic correlation between weight, beauty, and personal morality.