Marvelous is a tender, aching novel based somewhat loosely on the real life story of a man who was adopted into the French court at the age of ten for the entertainment of the king and queen.
Molly Greeling fictionalizes the life story of Petrus “Pedro” Gonsalvus, who was taken from his home in Tenerife in 1547 and given as a ‘gift’ to Henry II of France and his queen consort, Catherine de Medici. The long, ugly history of royalty being given human beings - as slave labor, prizes of war, walking ornaments for the court, or for other reasons - is something that Greeling does reckon with, as Pedro sometimes feels less than human thanks to his position at court.
Pedro was lucky among his fellows; he was given the opportunity to be educated in a princely manner during his time at court, and was treated as sort of an attaché of the royal family and became a favorite of Catherine’s. The court calls him Monsieur Sauvage, even though he is educated and appreciates the educated women who surround him, but he is also an object of spectacle and ridicule. Petrus can never be like the others he prays and works beside. He suffered from what appears to have been hypertrichosis, a genetic disorder that makes hair grow all over the body - also known as werewolf syndrome - and surviving portraits of Pedro and his family show that this is an apt term.
Catherine is fond enough of Pedro to seek out a proper wife for him. Enter another Catherine – Catherine Raffelin, daughter of the queen’s draper, poorly educated but widely traveled. Her father cannot pay his debts, so he offers Catherine up to the queen and she arranges his daughter’s wedding. This Catherine loves another, but in the 1500s this matters not. She and Pedro are married, and while he yearns to make her love him, she is in love with the handsome Nevers. Soon enough – as battles with the Hugenots and against court scheming take place – Catherine and Pedro find true love. But they’re expected to put their own children on display, and even farm them out, once they reproduce.
Marvelous is, in part, a reconstruction of the life story of the couple whose romance may have inspired Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve to write Beauty and the Beast – and this fictionalization of the story is just as spellbinding. Catherine and Petrus are incredibly sympathetic characters – Catherine, naïve and brilliant in her own way, Petrus, intelligent and filled with elegant brio – yet they are trapped within the feudal system that both privileges them and torments them. They are given elegant homes and food and educational opportunities, and yet they and their children are seen as soulless, less than human. They still eke out a lot of joy, even though there is much sadness in the journey.
This is definitely a bittersweet love story, but it’s a love story none the less, and one where two people find they admire and adore one another in ways they did not previously know they did. Greeling finds beauty in the ordinariness of their days (though she does remove a couple of the couple’s children from the narrative). But I loved the way the story is told, and how easily one can parallel what Petrus and Catherine go through to anyone who’s treated like a freak or oddity in the modern world.
Marvelous is a hard-to-forget delight that will break and fill your heart in equal measure.
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