Title: Forever Amber
Author: Kathleen Winsor
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books):
“Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare manages, by using her wits, beauty, and courage, to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England — that of favorite mistress of the Merry Monarch, Charles II. From whores and highwaymen to courtiers and noblemen, from events such as the Great Plague and the Fire of London to the intimate passions of ordinary — and extraordinary – men and women, Amber experiences it all. But throughout her trials and escapades, she remains, in her heart, true to the one man she really loves, the one man she can never have.
Frequently compared to Gone with the Wind, Forever Amber is the other great historical romance, outselling every other American novel of the 1940s, despite being banned in Boston for its sheer sexiness. A book to read and reread, this edition brings back to print an unforgettable romance and a timeless masterpiece.”
Thoughts: Historical fiction can be tricky. Modern readers tend to project their own values and actions onto historical figures, making it difficult to know where to draw the line between fact and fiction. Some of the most outlandish behavior, while historically accurate, is so far from being socially acceptable today that modern readers automatically believe authors have taken liberties with history and have spiced up the narrative for the modern palate when this is far from the truth. Forever Amber is an excellent example of such historical fiction.
Forever Amber is not for the prudish. While not explicit or tawdry, the Restoration was not an era in which it was okay to be squeamish about sex. Monogamy was passe, and the Court reveled in the freedom. No one uses this to her advantage so much as our not-so-hapless heroine, who uses the loose morals of the era to her distinct benefit and enjoys almost every moment. It can make for uncomfortable reading at times, especially when one truly does believe in monogamous marriages, let alone relationships. Still, it is as revealing to a reader’s own mindset as it is enlightening to a bygone era.
The synopsis specifically calls out a comparison to Gone With the Wind. This needs to be addressed. There are more than a few similarities, to the point where I had to confirm that Gone With the Wind was indeed written several years before Forever Amber. If I were less forgiving, I might be so inclined to say that Ms. Winsor borrowed heavily from Ms. Mitchell’s masterpiece. Amber is just as ruthless, just as driven as Scarlett, and just as misguided in her affections towards members of the opposite sex. She uses her beauty to get what she most desires, and it does not matter how many men she has to marry to get there. Sound familiar? The grandiose scenery, the Court drama and intrigue, the lush dresses – they have a very antebellum feel, and as Amber rises in power and prestige, it is eerily reminiscent to Scarlett’s own improved monetary status.
That being said, there are some excellent qualities to the book. The historical details are exquisite in their accuracy. Ms. Winsor’s eye for detail is used to full advantage in describing not only the clothes and furnishings but also the sights, sounds, and scents of Restoration London and the surrounding countryside. She does not gloss over the unpleasant minutiae either, adding an air of realism to the entire novel. The major historical events, such as the Black Plague and later, the Great Fire, are utterly fascinating. The reader cannot but help feeling a part of the backdrop during these scenes. Yet, it was so easy to see Scarlett as Amber that the entire novel just left a decidedly bitter aftertaste. A book can be similar and borrow from other successful novels without being so blatant about it. Forever Amber was just too similar and too blatant in the elements it borrowed.
The similarities to Gone With the Wind, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, were too great to ignore, and as such, I struggled to enjoy Forever Amber as much as I feel I should have. For those who have not read Gone With the Wind multiple times, or are not bothered by extremely similar plots and characters, then Forever Amber is definitely one that should be added to the must-read list. More importantly, Ms. Winsor’s ability to craft a captivating novel must be acknowledged. In spite of the problems I had with it, Forever Amber remains interesting for its entirety; at over 950 pages, this is quite a feat. In addition, one’s understanding of the Restoration and Charles II will improve tenfold thanks to the careful and painstakingly detailed research Ms. Winsor undertook before writing the novel. In all, there is much to enjoy. It hasn’t survived this long if readers didn’t fall in love with Amber. Unfortunately, I just could not get over the feeling that I was reading the Restoration version of Gone With the Wind.