Every once in a while there is a rare historical novel that is both romantic and literary. POISON, the story of two women born on the same day whose parallel lives mirror many of the great events in Europe's history, is such a work of art.

POISON is narrated by Francisca de Luarca, a silkworm farmer's daughter who dreams of silk dresses-not worms. Her father's greed causes the family to lose their farm in a fire and it is Francisca's mother, acting as a wet nurse, who leads the family to the palace as nurse to the sickly infant king, Don Carlos II.

Francisca's parallel is Marie Louise de Bourbon, Louis XIV's niece, Carlos' betrothed. At 18 she leaves France for her new home, knowing everyone expects her to produce the heir, a task that proves impossible, due to Carlos' incompetence.

While Francisca falls hopelessly in love with her teacher, Father Alvaro, and brings the eyes of the inquisition to focus on her as a witch and heretic, Marie Louise is kept under the eye of a watchful court and is compelled to fake pregnancy and miscarriage.

In the end both women become prisoners in the palace; one in the dungeon and one in the perfumed bedroom where she lies dying.

Kathryn Harrison's debut historical is a true masterpiece-a novel filled with accurate, revealing historical details and characters, real and fictional, who capture our imagination and compassion. Francisca dies for love and Marie Louise for loss, yet both women are products of their poisonous time. Kathryn Harrison is so skilled at her craft that once your are drawn into POISON you will not want to leave the passionate, colorful thought-provoking world she creates. (June, 317 pp., $23.00)

Reviewed by: 
Kathe Robin