The Serpent Garden

Author: Judith Merkle Riley
Reviewer's Age: Grade 12

Judith Merkle Riley is a professor at Claremont McKenna College and she deftly incorporates her extensive historical knowledge with an engaging plot in the novel The Serpent Garden. The work of fiction takes place during the reign of the young King Henry VIII in the midst of the bustle and clamor that was, and indeed is, London. The story unfolds around a naive Flemish woman named Susanna whose reality is suddenly changed by the deaths of her parents, the murder of her adulterous husband, and the loss of a child while giving birth. After suffering through the shock of these ordeals, Susanna transforms from an obedient, submissive wife to a competent, ambitious and street smart lady who must practice her father's art of miniature portrait painting in order to support her servant companion, Nan, and herself. Quickly, a complicated scenario ensues as Susanna's buried husband's diabolical pursuits ensnare her in the grips of some of England's most powerful forces. A surprisingly intricate weave of history and fiction as well as a highly readable tale, The Serpent Garden imparts a compelling narrative and draws upon qualities such as lust for power, sustaining hope and the ability to endure that are timeless.