Anne & Henry by Dawn Ius (2015)
Anne has already gone to Hollywood, but now she’s moved north — in fact, she’s not far from me, in a vaguely-situated, obscenely wealthy, social-climber-infested small town called Medina which happens to be located just outside Seattle. This endeared the book to me from the beginning, and it was a lot of fun trying to figure out where Medina was really supposed to be. My conclusion, based on geographic clues such as the location of Lake Washington and the floating bridge to Seattle, is that Medina is actually Mercer Island, but I’m open to argument. (If you want to know more about Mercer Island, check out their subreddit — no, really, it doesn’t matter if you don’t like Reddit, just look. You’ll learn everything you need to know about the place in two seconds. I’ll wait). Anne Boleyn, however, is not from Medina — she’s a recent transplant from considerably less swank Aurora Avenue in North Seattle, brought to Medina when her waitress mother married a wealthy architect named Thomas Harris. That in itself should be enough to tell you that the story diverges significantly from the original, so if you want to read it unspoiled, my summary will avoid giving too much away but you definitely want to avoid the categories at the end. Note that this really is a fun, largely well-written reimagining, albeit it’s planted firmly in “freely adapted” territory and stretches credulity in a couple of spots, so if you enjoy novels starring obscenely rich teenagers doing horrible things to each other (and who doesn’t?) I recommend it highly.
Henry Tudor is a senior at Medina Academy, an expensive private school for expensive people’s children. He’s the son and grandson of senators, and is slated for Harvard, then law school, and then a glorious political career which will eventually lead to the presidency. He didn’t have quite this weight of expectation on him a few years ago, but then his older brother Arthur, the responsible golden child, died in an accident which Henry doesn’t like to discuss (no, he didn’t kill him, if you’re wondering) and Henry inherited both the senatorial mantle and Arthur’s girlfriend, Catherine Aragon — blonde cheerleader and also the daughter of one of the richest families in Medina. Henry’s family is, of course, the richest, but that doesn’t mean they’re universally revered.
My father, his father, and even my great-grandfather believed in action above promise, in making life better for the people they represented. We founded this town, but under the surface of every practiced VIP’s smile, their envy festers. Medina is full of people just waiting for me to fuck up — for another family to waltz in and take center stage.
And, during one of the endless, “gaudy” costume parties thrown by Henry’s mother, another family does waltz in — Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Harris, with Mrs. Harris’ daughter, Anne Boleyn. Mr. Harris is an architect designing some buildings downtown, but Henry is less interested in him than in his stepdaughter. Henry sees her first while dancing with Catherine.
She is a raven among doves. Bloodred lipstick forms the shape of a heart, striking against her stark black hair and the simple disguise in her hand. Something stirs in my gut … My face is flushed by the time I get to her, and I thrust my palm out with a jerk.
“Henry,” I say. The heart on her lips shifts in an ever-so-slight smirk. I cough out a nervous laugh, and exhaling, add, “I live here.”
Jesus Christ, I live here? I will the floor to open up and swallow me whole.
Anne, far from being disgusted, is amused and asks him if he wants to dance, but shortly after that Catherine reclaims him and Anne runs into some of Henry’s courtiers, AKA fellow classmates at Medina Academy, which Anne will soon be attending. Said young men are drunk enough to start speculating in her hearing about how good a lay she would be. “She looks like a skank — I like a bit of a challenge, you know?” says a guy named John, and Anne decides to lead him on a wild goose chase. “Screw all of them and their pretentious judgment,” she thinks. “I won’t let these people, my past, my guilt control me.” Against her better judgment, she’s sidling up to John, flirting with him, leading him on and then finally shutting him down when he propositions her. “Not even if you were the last asshole on the planet,” she tells him, at precisely the moment all his friends are listening. They’re shocked and outraged. Henry, watching from a distance, is highly entertained.
Anne is less pleased with herself the next day when it turns out John is her seatmate in biology class and is both angry at her for embarrassing him and determined to pick up where he left off, and also that Catherine and her friends have noticed Henry’s attraction to her and are determined to freeze her out. Anne, already very brittle and given to putting on a tough girl pose (she rides a motorcycle, constantly fences with people verbally, and shows how alienated she is by reading The Second Sex in the original) decides on the advice of her sole girlfriend Sam (who’s the student council secretary, hint hint) that her best bet is to avoid Henry completely and just try to get through the school year, but as luck would have it, Henry has no interest in avoiding her. Since he’s (apparently) the only male in all of Medina Academy who isn’t a complete pig, and furthermore he enjoys the company of a girl who refuses to suck up to him all the time, Anne finds herself becoming unwillingly and then willingly attracted to him. They pair up to solve a “murder” during a murder mystery party (read: masque) thrown by Catherine during which Anne is cast as a streetwalker, hang out on the beach, talk about their lost siblings — Henry’s brother lost to a hiking accident during a charity event which Henry was supposed to host but flaked on, and Anne’s sister to a mental breakdown for which Anne feels responsible. Incidentally, I really appreciated the fact that they told each other about these things and didn’t conceal them so the other could be conveniently told by hostile parties at the worst possible moment.
The story is told in chapters alternating between Henry’s and Anne’s points of view, and on the whole it works very well — in fact, I don’t think it would be possible for the book to be as good as it is without them because even though they talk a good deal there’s much more that they don’t say because, well, they’re teenagers and they have acts to maintain. Henry is outwardly confident, inwardly longing to spend more time on the things he really loves, sports and acting. Anne tries, and succeeds, in looking like a confident hard number, but she’s desperate to fit into this weird new environment and to forget about her old life.
Henry’s friends — and of course, Catherine’s — aren’t going to let him go without a fight, though. After a long round of guilt-tripping Henry about how they saw each other through Arthur’s death and are “meant to be” as a result, and after Anne very stupidly gives her an opening by driving drunk with Henry as a passenger on her motorcycle and getting them into a complicated situation (it’s a major departure, so I won’t elaborate), Catherine and her friends start to flatter Anne, treat her like one of themselves, and of course invite her to one of those gaudy, expensive parties which abound in books like these. Anne, knowing they don’t mean well but not wanting to break character, so to speak, attends the party against her better judgment. And Catherine and her friends attend as well, bringing quite a lot of liquor and all of their camera phones. The resulting “evidence” is soon brought before the Student Council at Medina Academy, which has the power to unilaterally expel any student who violates the Code of Conduct. The President is, of course, Henry — who, unbeknownst to anyone present at the inquiry into Anne’s behavior, has recently met and been vaguely attracted to a sweet barista named Jane. (What with Catherine and Anne both raging at him, she’s just so relaxing). And in the end, nobody quite gets what they want.
SEX OR POLITICS? Sex by a reasonably wide margin — Henry certainly likes hearing Anne’s ideas, but none of them have anything to do with matters political except for a few generic, disillusioned-teenager declarations about how all politicians are amoral sharks. She’s not his political ally or advisor on reforming anything, she’s his escape. Politics are, however, more present than you’d expect in a high school setting; aside from being president of the absurdly powerful student council, Henry is also the son and grandson of senators and is expected to become one in his turn; his mother is constantly hustling him to parties and meetings with influential people who could help smooth his already well-manicured path to Harvard and political success. But this is all strictly subplot territory; it’s what he’s trying to get away from when he hooks up with Anne, as she’s clearly “not First Lady material,” as a friend disapprovingly notes. (I have to disagree with him there — nothing Anne has done, or is supposed to have done, comes across as particularly shocking to the world at large, especially since she’s underage for all of it and, sufficiently massaged, would make a killer Rags To White House story).
WHEN BORN? Anne is a high school junior as the book opens, and since this is a five-minutes-into-the-future story, I’m assuming that her junior year began in the autumn of 2015, making her born in either 1998 or 1999. She says Mary is a couple of years older, so presumably she was born around 1996. Henry is a senior, as is Catherine, so around 1997 for both of them.
THE EARLY LOVE None — Henry Tudor, not Henry Percy, is her first real, disastrous romance. She makes a few references to ill-conceived hookups at her old school, when she was acting out after her father left, but it doesn’t sound like any of them were great romances. (Jesse, ex-boyfriend of Mary, is of course in another, much more unpleasant category). Geoffrey, a football player from Seattle proper who attends the final, disastrous party where Anne is set up, is cast for the role of “the guy Anne is really into” by Catherine’s friends but he isn’t any such thing.
THE QUEEN’S BEES Catherine has her cheerleader friends — Liz and Marie are the most prominent, but they don’t have much to do besides, well, cheerlead for Catherine. (Marie may the updated version of Maria de Salinas, but it isn’t like you’d be able to tell). Anne has nobody except for Sam, the student council secretary who’s a less powerful gender-flip version of Thomas Cromwell — who of course was also a secretary, in the days when that could be an extremely prestigious occupation. Sam is friendly with Anne — giving her advice, hanging out on weekends, and so forth — but when the final “trial” arrives, Sam slips back in with the popular crowd, with no indication that she knows Anne at all. She’s only moderately like Cromwell, since she doesn’t do much to engineer Anne’s rise and has no apparent role in her downfall, but like most courtiers she’s happy to change with the prevailing winds.
Henry’s friends are slightly more distinctive, but not much. There’s John, the jerk who harasses Anne in biology class and later accuses her of coming on to him, because that’s what skanks like her do. There’s Wyatt, an obvious stand-in for You Know Who, but he doesn’t get much in the way of lyric-writing to do. However, he does resemble the original in finding Anne extremely attractive. “I mean, she’s sexy,” he tells Henry, “But she’s not the kind of girl you bring home to mom.” The original Wyatt put it more eloquently, but his opinion of “Brunet” seems to have fairly similar. Rick doesn’t have much to do except be there, and Charles is distinctive mostly because he comes from Australia and occasionally tries to put a word in for Anne, pointing out that it’s difficult to be an outsider, especially when you don’t have a sexy accent. (He doesn’t have anything in common with the Duke of Suffolk except his first name; unlike the Duke, he doesn’t have lowborn origins, and Suffolk never liked Anne).
THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR None unless you count Clarice, which is Anne’s name for her motorcycle.
THE PROPHECY Anne berates herself for falling for Henry a number of times, and predicts disaster based on her past; similarly, Henry is constantly thinking about how crazy he is for getting involved with her and how his mother and friends will come down on him like a ton of bricks. None of which really rise to the level of prophecies, but the doomed young love feeling is nevertheless strong with both of them, especially they joke around with re-enacting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet.
IT’S A GIRL! N/A
DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No. You get the feeling this Anne wouldn’t mind having one, though — the better to disconcert people.
FAMILY AFFAIRS In Henry’s case, there’s a significant albeit necessary change; his mother is still alive and clinging to him even harder than she otherwise might, due to the fact that she’s recently lost both her husband and her oldest son. Mrs. Tudor is the perfect, glittering matriarch who throws lavish parties, spends a lot of her time working the connections which will get Henry into Harvard and launched on his future political career, is perfectly charming to everyone, even former waitresses who married above themselves (well, she’s polite to their faces, anyway). She’s a compelling modern-day equivalent — not to Elizabeth of York, but to Margaret Beaufort, who also worked tirelessly on behalf of her own Henry. (“Everything you ever worked for,” Henry says bitterly when his mother congratulates him on how close he is to achieving “his” goals).
Anne’s family situation is changed even more. Thomas, in this rendition, is not Thomas Boleyn, but Thomas Harris, a wealthy architect who only recently became Anne’s stepfather. Her biological father deserted the family while Anne and Mary were in their early teens and hasn’t been seen by them since; her mother was waitressing and living in a rathole apartment on Aurora Avenue when Thomas “swooped in and rescued” her, in Anne’s rather non-starry-eyed take on things. Elizabeth is now doing her best to fit in as the wealthy architect’s wife and forget that she was ever anything else (“Well done, Ladybug!” she tells Anne when she discovers that Anne is dating the town golden boy) — and you know, for all Anne disparages their relationship in the grand tradition of unhappy stepchildren, I admit I was very curious as to what got Thomas and Anne’s mother together. How did he even meet her? How did he really feel about her children? He certainly didn’t seem to mind laying out absolutely enormous sums of money on them (private academy plus a permanent bed in a psychiatric hospital adds up to a non-trivial amount of cash even for a really successful architect). Of course, this is a YA novel, so that question isn’t really explored, but it says something about the book that the minor characters felt solid enough to have actual unexplored backstories.
As for siblings, this book turns the nineteenth-century convention on its head and jettisons George but keeps Mary. However, we never actually see her. Mary, as it turns out, has been mentally unstable from early childhood, but what finally put the lid on things was when she discovered Anne asleep on the couch with her (Mary’s) boyfriend, Jesse. Jesse had been creeping on Anne for a while, but subtly enough that nobody believed the latter when she said he’d sneaked under the covers after she fell asleep, so Mary had a major breakdown and as of Anne’s arrival in Medina, is still living in a psychiatric hospital, paid for the obliging Thomas since otherwise they’d be unable to afford it. “They think she’s certifiable,” Anne tells Henry, though I’d think she’d have to be certified before spending upwards of a year in a psychiatric ward. Henry’s and Anne’s lost siblings are sore spots for both of them and leads to a really nice scene when they finally tell each other about them and realize how much they have in common. Both feel somewhat responsible for their loss — Henry because Arthur died in a hiking accident on a hike which Henry, who was much better outdoorsman, was supposed to lead, and Anne because she feels that Mary’s breakdown might have been averted if Anne had protested more when Jesse set her up. It’s a good characterization moment, and also a very modern one — it’s not overly common now for young, well-off first worlders to have lost a sibling. In the sixteenth century, of course, it was more uncommon not to.
DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? A nice, subtle take on the subject. She didn’t do the worst things she was accused of (pursuing John, sleeping with her sister’s boyfriend), however, she is definitely guilty of being reckless; going to the party even when she knew full well that most if not all the people there were ready and willing to stab her in the back, and drinking to point where she endangered herself — not just at the party, thereby giving her enemies chances to take lots of supposedly damning snapshots on their phones, but on the earlier occasion when she and Henry were at the beach, and she drank half a bottle of vodka and insisted on driving her motorcycle afterward. The real Anne’s taste for banter and flirtation, while very dissimilar to modern eyes, was actually more similar than one might think. There was nothing inherently harmful or damning in any of it, but she was making herself vulnerable to her enemies when she told Henry Norris that he “looked to dead men’s shoes” in a place where nobody’s words could be secret and to contemplate the king’s death was treason. And by doing so she was, as it turned out, putting Henry Norris into as much danger as the modern-day Henry Tudor runs when he climbs onto a motorcycle behind a drunk Anne. I really liked how the author handled this situation; Anne was unquestionably innocent (OK, drunk driving excepted), however, her pushing the envelope in the interests of looking tough ironically ended up making her extremely vulnerable.
WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The descriptions can be lovely and evocative, and while Anne’s and Henry’s inner monologues have narrative voices which are rather similar, they still work well. It’s surprising, on reread, how many of their thoughts they don’t articulate, although it’s convincing enough considering that these are two high schoolers who are both very invested in maintaining their own particular act — Henry as the super-successful future political star, Anne as the hard-bitten disillusioned biker feminist who gives no fucks about anything.
If there’s a weak spot, it’s the dialogue. It’s perfectly good most of the time but there are times when the characters sound more like they’re writing an essay than actually saying their thoughts out loud. Anne, describing how Jesse cultivated her and everyone in her family before moving in on her, tells Henry that “his subtle flirtations became more overt.” That sounds like something that would be written in charge papers, not something that would come out of a sixteen-year-old girl’s mouth, no matter how much de Beauvoir she reads. During one episode when she and Henry sneak into the deserted theater where he used to act occasionally (before Arthur died, of course), they joke around pretending to act out the balcony scene, but then Anne gets freaked out.
She bites her lip and her eyes go cloudy. “Murder, tragedy? Star-crossed … lovers?” The last word trails out on an extended breath. “Romeo and Juliet isn’t your typical romance, Henry.” She drops her voice to a whisper. “Everyone dies.”
It’s just clunky. There’s no reason for her to be telling Henry that except to nudge the reader in the ribs about how doomed they are.
WORTH A READ? If you like YA novels and don’t mind some appearances of fuck patois, I think you’ll really enjoy this. The dialogue can be choppy and the narration doesn’t always distinguish quite enough between Henry’s portions and Anne’s portions, but nonetheless it has a really strong, crazy energy to it which makes it good and keeps you wondering until the end just what will happen — and, unusually, made me want even more at the end. Henry’s expected to get back together with Catherine, but now he’s met Jane the barista, who’s probably only marginally more acceptable than Anne was. What’s he going to do now? I genuinely wanted to know, and to see the reactions of the people around him who expected him to snap back into his old love life (read: religious affiliation). If the author ever released Jane & Henry, I’ll be buying it the day it comes out. Anne herself, although she has very little in common with her original (who was wealthy and high-status, not an impoverished outsider) was nonetheless an unexpectedly interesting update. She has the motorcycle, the elaborate don’t-care attitude, and shows off her rebelliousness by reading, um, The Second Sex. It’s a nice clue that Anne’s rebellion is as much a shield and a show as anything. She’s making herself into a cliche of toughness both to impress people and to keep them from getting too close to her, and it ends up working, for a while. The fact that she fascinates Henry by refusing to bow and scrape to him definitely rang true to the original.
As for Anne’s fate, I was also wondering about that until the end. You get the feeling that Henry’s family has enough pull that he really could get away with murdering someone, as long as it looked vaguely like an accident and the victim didn’t have much in the way of social connections, so it was something of a relief when the worst thing Anne’s character suffers is expulsion from school.
Which leads me to one of two major weak points: the fact that the student council, led by Henry, can expel any student for violating the Code of Conduct, with no teacher supervision. While I can accept that a teacher at Filthy Rich Academy could in practice have his hands tied and essentially have to go along with whatever the Filthy Rich Clientele wanted, even if it was not terribly ethical, it seemed really strange that there was absolutely no person over the age of eighteen involved in this process at all — the Absurdly Powerful Student Council in very fact. Considering that most if not all of the parents at the school probably have lawyers on retainer, not to mention the inherent likelihood of abuse, you’d think that the whole student-led expulsion process would never have made it past the committee stage, let alone become an actual institution. It does make you wonder about the saintly older brother Arthur, who instituted the whole thing. What was he really like? Henry misses him too much to be objective, so we’ll never know.
The other weak point is also related to Arthur, and that’s Catherine. She’s the only daughter of one of the “richest families in Medina” and her relationship with Henry is something that both her parents and Henry’s mother desperately want to happen (“Being with Catherine is expected,” as Henry tells himself). When she can tell Henry is slipping away, Catherine upbraids him tearfully about what will happen if takes up with Anne: “Can’t you see what you’ll lose? Everything. And for what? A fling?” Henry takes this logic seriously, but I couldn’t. Medina might be an incredibly wealthy community, but it’s not the entire country of England. Henry is supposed to leave Medina for Harvard next year. Would anyone on the Harvard admissions committee seriously care who Henry was running around with? Highly unlikely.
For that matter, it seemed very strange that Henry’s mother — widow and daughter in law of U.S. Senators — was so anxious for him and Catherine to marry after college. Catherine’s family may be wealthy and influential in Medina, but Mrs. Tudor of all people would have to know that Henry would meet plenty of rich, high-status girls at Harvard, and undoubtedly quite a few of them would outshine Catherine. Her eagerness to get them engaged didn’t ring true and was one of the few occasions where it felt like the characters were being forced into unnatural actions because the plot demanded it and the relationship with Catherine had to have some sort of high-stakes issue attached to it. But as in Anne Of Hollywood, this update attempt failed. There is simply no way to depict Catherine of Aragon’s situation accurately in a modernization, and doubly so if she’s being depicted as a young woman with her life ahead of her, and no daughter whose interests need to be protected. But as in the other book, it still seemed like Catherine got the shaft. Couldn’t she at least have resembled the original in being literate and intelligent? If Anne is going to be showing off her reading of de Beauvoir, you’d think Catherine could at least counter with, I don’t, pretending to be able to parse Judith Butler. Maybe the girls could snipe at each other about intersectionality a bit to show how with-it they are. Catherine was a missed opportunity, but the book is good enough to be able to afford a few missed shots, not least because it leads to very enjoyable arguments about how we might have done it. Good, trashy fun and surprisingly thought-provoking.
Links to Amazon are an affiliate link. You can help The Head That Launched A Thousand Books read even more novels by purchasing any item (not just the one linked to) through these links.