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The Red Queen Paperback – Bargain Price, October 3, 2005

3.2 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In her 16th novel, Drabble exhibits her characteristic ironic detachment in an elegantly constructed meditation on memory, mortality, risk and reward. Dr. Babs Halliwell, a 40-ish academic on sabbatical at Oxford, receives an anonymous gift on the eve of her departure for a conference in Seoul: a copy of the 18th-century Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong's memoir. In the crown princess's tumultuous time, women of the court could exercise power only through men. But the sly, coquettish and charmingly unreliable princess not only outlived her mad husband but also survived her brothers, her sons and innumerable palace plots. Her story and her spirit all but possess Dr. Halliwell, whose tragic personal losses and highly ritualized professional life cleverly and subtly mirror those of the crown princess. Upon her arrival in Seoul, Dr. Halliwell begins to come a bit unhinged as pieces of her long-submerged past threaten to catch up with her at last. "These things," she observes, "have long, long fuses." She innocently takes up with a generous Korean doctor, who becomes her tour guide in the jarringly foreign city. Soon, she's also flattered into embarking on a brief but intense affair with a famous and charismatic Dutch anthropologist who's busy grappling with ghosts of his own. Nimbly jumping across time and around the globe, Drabble artfully stitches together the disparate strands of both women's lives with "a scarlet thread... of blood and joy." The voices of the dead reach out to the living, where the ancient and the modern "pass through one another, like clouds of bees, like distant galaxies... like the curving spirals of a double helix."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Drabble read JaHyun Kim Haboush's translation of The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea (1995) and became possessed. Enthralled by the tough-minded memoirist and the crucial phase of Korean history she illuminates, Drabble doesn't simply fictionalize the crown princess' dramatic story, she transforms the royal author into a ghostly, insistent presence who has studied the world closely since her death and who has decided to retell her story in light of all that has transpired in the interim. And so the crown princess--proud, frank, intelligent, discursive, and still wounded by the cruelty of her father-in-law, King Yongjo, and the terrible crimes and suffering of her mad and murderous husband, Prince Sado--recounts her harrowing experiences, matching Anchee Min's historically based Empress Orchid [BKL N 15 03] with her vivid depiction of the claustrophobia and dysfunction of an Asian court, and also offering delectably caustic commentary on the modern world. But there's more. Drabble, a master at constructing two-track, two-epoch tales (The Seven Sisters [2002] brings Virgil into our time), abruptly switches to the present, where the intrepid Dr. Barbara Halliwell, a fetching English academic, reads the crown princess' memoirs on the way to a conference in Seoul, thus inadvertently instigating hilarious, sexy, and suspenseful adventures that reveal curious parallels between her life and that of the Korean princess. Drabble is sleight-of-hand adept at slipping profoundly insightful musings on human nature, history, and social mores into scintillating and all-consuming novels. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 348 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (October 3, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156032708
  • ASIN: B000V4R2M4
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,237,781 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on November 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Intending to write a "transcultural tragicomedy," Margaret Drabble announces that this novel will ask questions "about the nature of survival, and about the possibility of the existence of universal transcultural human characteristics." Using the real memoirs of 18th century Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong as the inspiration for her novel, Drabble creates her own version of these memoirs, placing them within the context of world history by relating them to what was happening in western civilization at the same time.

Chosen to be the bride of the Crown Prince when both are ten years old, the Princess abandons her family and marries the prince that year. We hear her adult voice relating the sad changes her husband undergoes after their marriage, as he becomes increasingly fearful and eventually insane, committing atrocities, including murder. "I failed my husband," she says, unable to stop his rampages. Describing her training to be queen, the birth of her children and their fates, and her experience in the claustrophobic court, she breathes life into her descriptions of her unusual existence. Though her observations are honest and fair, her language, not surprisingly, is elegant and formal. She keeps her distance, not really sharing her innermost thoughts and feelings.

In Part II, Babs Halliwell, a contemporary scholar in Oxford, leaves for Korea to deliver a paper at a conference on globalization. Drabble creates obvious parallels between the life of the Princess and that of Halliwell from the outset of Part II. As Halliwell boards the plane, she brings with her a copy of the Princess's memoirs, "sent to her anonymously, packaged in cardboard, through Amazon.com," which she reads in flight.
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Format: Hardcover
"The Red Queen" is a tale of two women struggling for survival in a world dominated by insanity, death, and some degree of oppression. The first part of the book is narrated by the Red Queen herself, a Korean woman married to the Crown Prince as a child and forced to navigate a series of political and familial struggles which ultimately lead to the Prince's insanity and death. The second part turns to Babs, an academic who has also lost her husband to insanity and who seeks to not only escape her past but embrace and exploit her present. Babs reads the Red Queen's memoirs on the flight to a conference in Korea, and the sprit of the Red Queen haunts her throughout the trip.

"The Red Queen" is intelligent and, despite requiring some effort to read, engrossing. Drabble tells a wonderful story and both portions of the novel are imbued with intelligent characters, well-constructed language, and a quiet sense of humor. The first part of the story, narrated by the Red Queen, is particularly unusual and insightful.

The novel's failing is that its central conceit - that Babs and the Red Queen are in some way linked, or more particularly that their stories are linked - falls flat. Although I enjoyed each part of the book, I saw little in the way of parallels beyond the obvious, and the consequences of these were not apparent. The second part of the book thus lacked focus, and resorted to an unnecessarily trite ending.
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Format: Hardcover
Korean Crown Princess Hyegyong speaks from her 200-year-old grave to reveal the true story of her life. Born in 1735, she was pampered as a child to compensate for her destiny in the palace. Her parents suffered depression; the Crown Princess knew at an early age that play was pretend but sorrow was real. Her childhood ended early when her parents entered her into the selection ceremony as a royal bride. The mother of the Crown Prince, Lady Sonhui, favored her and so she was chosen.

The little girl was horrified on her long visits to the palace, where she was petted and fed strange foods, and painted with cosmetics. At home, palace servants attended to her and her parents deferred to her. She wanted to die. Sick with fear on her wedding day, she was married at age ten to Prince Sado, also ten, who called his wife his "little Red Queen" because of her prized red silk skirt. The married children played together, with dolls, kites, a toy horse, and the toy soldiers Sado loved. The marriage was consummated five years later.

The Princess's first son died. Her father-in-law, King Yongjo, was an odd man with many obsessions and insecurities who treated his son, Sado, harshly. He decreed that the couple's second son, Chongjo, was to be groomed to be king because Sado was becoming mentally unstable. As the young mother worried over her beloved son's fate, her husband became madder and madder. Prince Sado blamed his mania on his father's lack of love toward him; his actions were violent and terrifying. Complex court and family maneuvering and catastrophes shaped the Princess's remaining years.

After the princess narrates the balance of her tragic life, the story switches to modern-day England, focusing on Dr.
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Format: Paperback
I had this on my bookshelf for over four years before I finally decided to read it. As a Korean American who has taught some Korean history, I just wasn't in the mood to read yet more about Korea from a "Western" point of view. So I was pleasantly surprised to find how much the author got right about the history, and how much she could make me care about the ancient heroine.

However, as I was reading, I couldn't help but compare it to People of the Book: A Novel. I thought the structure of that book "worked": it started in the present and alternated with the past, each time going a little deeper. But this had all of the Crown Princess' story, then all of the modern professor's story. The Crown Princess was truly compelling- why would I want to leave her for the professor?

Because Drabble did an excellent job with her. It was slower going, but that's to be expected as the Princess spoke in the first person and the professor's story was told, from the "limited omniscient" (and let's leave it at that). She has more freedom from the princess, but she is, in her own way, just as lonely. Her choices made me cringe- sorry, being a concubine is even less attractive in the modern era than it was in the ancient- but in Drabble's hands I could understand why she made them.

Yes, some of the parallels were too obvious, but some were subtle and touching. I did not like the way the author inserted herself into the story- let's keep that fourth wall up, please- but it felt, in a way, as if she didn't want to let go of the characters and wanted to make sure she helped play as much of a part as she could. It's difficult to find too much fault for that.
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