This was the first novel by Philippa Gregory that I ever read, and I found it at the library whilst searching for The Other Boleyn Girl. At the start of my reading, I knew little of Elizabeth I's reign, and by the end of the novel I had not taken much away. The Virgin's Lover describes the complicated story of Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley, her Master of Horse from a family line of traitors to the crown -- and little else save for her brief war with the French involving the Scots and the difficulties of ruling a bankrupt and religiously-torn country. Elizabeth is portrayed as anything but the strong, feminist and brilliant Virgin Queen she is known as today, and is instead, at twenty-five, immature, overly-flirtatious to the point of being 'slutty', and more reliant on the love and support of Robert Dudley than the guidance of counselors.
Do I necessarily disagree with this shockingly weak portrayal of history's favorite queen? No. Elizabeth was not always the iron queen with the heart of stone that we remember her to be; she was once a young woman, sincerely in love, and quite torn between heart and mind. The only thing troubling about this unique portrayal is Gregory's characteristically disdainful tone toward Elizabeth, carried over from its prequel "The Queen's Fool". The author has a distinct bias against Elizabeth and her mother, but if you are no fan of historical accuracy and enjoy the demonization of Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I, then this book is fully recommended. As I personally adore the mother-daughter duo after tiresome and passionate research of them, I found it quite irksome.
As for the book itself, while "The Virgin Queen" was juicy, sexy, scandalous and romantic, it was lacking in flow with predictable and cliche characters -- Amy, the faithful wronged wife; Robert, the selfish and UNfaithful husband; Elizabeth, the man-stealing whore -- and without distinctive plot. From the start, the story is building up to the moment Elizabeth and Robert consummate their relationship, and the sexual tension is gripping and enjoyable; but after, the story falls flat, with their love 'progressing' like an awkward roller coaster and one historical event flowing directionlessly into another, up until SPOILER Amy Dudley's death. Gregory fails to create a sympathetic ending for Dudley's wronged wife, and the story ends suddenly with very dry, predictable drama and little closure -- although this was most likely intentional.
Overall, "The Virgin's Lover" is recommended for historical romance enthusiasts considering starting up on the Tudor/Elizabethan era, but NOT for history buffs.