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Groff (Florida) fashions a boldly original narrative based on the life and legend of 12th-century poet Marie de France. After Marie is banished to a poverty-stricken British abbey by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at age 17 in 1158, she transforms from a reluctant prioress into an avid abbess. With the rhythm of days and nights regulated by the canonical hours from Lauds to Prime, from Compline to bed, Marie reshapes the claustrophobic community into a “self-sufficient... island of women,” where “a woman’s power exists only as far as she is allowed.” To that end, she confesses a series of 19 beatific visions that guide her in designing an impenetrable underground labyrinth as a secret passageway to the convent, building separate abbess quarters, establishing a scriptorium, and constructing a woman-made lake and dam to insure a constant water supply. Groff fills the novel with friendships among the nuns, inspirational apparitions, and writings empowered by divine inspiration. Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (Sept.)

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From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

In the twelfth century, former child crusader and “bastardess heir to the crown” of France and England, “poor illegitimate Marie from nowhere in Le Maine,” at age 17 arrives at the crumbling, dismal abbey where she will live, and which she will transform completely, during the many remaining years of her life. Considered unmarriageable for her great height and lack of beauty, and an overall burden, Marie was sent to save the abbey by Queen Eleanor, who prides herself on the brilliant move despite Marie’s strong resistance to it. As Marie, who knows her own greatness, softens to her new surroundings, readers learn the goings-on of the abbey and its environs and get to know the nuns. When, decades later, Marie ascends to abbess, the sisters become her daughters, who respond with fear and inspiration to Marie’s increasingly ambitious building plans for the abbey based on her visions of the Virgin Mary. Splendid with rich description and period vocabulary, this courageous and spine-tingling novel shows an incredible range for Groff (Florida, 2018), and will envelop readers fully in Marie’s world, interior and exterior, all senses lit up. It is both a complete departure and an easy-to-envision tale of faith, power, and temptation. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Fans have been prepped for Groff's first novel since the mega-best-selling Fates and Furies (2015).

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Set in early medieval Europe, this book paints a rousing portrait of an abbess seizing and holding power. After the spicy, structurally innovative Fates and Furies (2015), Groff spins back 850 years to a girl on a horse: “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” The inspiration is a historical figure, Marie de France, considered the first woman to write poetry in French. Groff gives her a fraught, lifelong, sexually charged tie to Eleanor of Aquitaine. A matrix, which comes from the Latin for mother, builds implacably between Eleanor and Marie. But in the first chapter, the queen rids the court of an ungainly, rustic Marie by installing her in a remote English convent, home to 20 starving nuns. The sisters hang the traveler’s clothes in the communal privy, where “the ammonia of the piss kills the beasties”—the lice. After a long sulk, Marie rouses herself to examine the abbey’s disastrous ledgers, mount her warhorse, and gallop forth to turn out the family most egregiously squatting on convent land. News spreads and the rents come in, “some grumbling but most half proud to have a woman so tough and bold and warlike and royal to answer to now.” The novel is at its best through Marie's early years of transforming the ruined, muddy convent, bit by bit, into a thriving estate, with a prosperous new scriptorium, brimming fields, and spilling flocks, protected by a forest labyrinth and spies abroad. In this way, Marie forestalls the jealous priests and village men plotting against her. Readers of Arcadia (2012), Groff’s brilliantly evocative hippie commune novel, will remember her gift for conjuring life without privacy. And she knows a snake always lurks within Eden. The cloister witnesses lust, sex, pregnancy, peril. Marie has visions of the Virgin Mary, 19 in all, but these passages stay flat. Medieval mystics, unsurprisingly, write better about mysticism. The gesture toward a lost theology based on Marie’s visions amounts to weak tea. Groff’s trademarkworthy sentences bring vivid buoyancy to a magisterial story. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.