Seventeen-year-old Marie does not meet medieval expectations of femininity. Declared too tall and too plain for marriage, she is banished from Eleanor of Aquitane’s court and sent to a failing abbey, where the nuns are dying of starvation. The abbess is kind but ineffective as a leader. Initially acting as prioress, Marie slowly gains more control over the running of the abbey. She brings a secular view to abbey administration and an independent noblewoman’s head for business. Instead of assigning each nun to tasks she is poorly suited to, with a goal of fostering a Christ-like humility, she reverses the abbey’s practices and assigns the women jobs according to their strength. One of Marie’s greatest strengths is the ability to see the potential and the danger in the women around her. In time, Marie herself becomes a powerful figure in England, in spite of or because of her plain appearance.
Based on the life of Marie de France, Matrix examines both the power that medieval women held and the limitations. Eleanor and Marie initially seem to be opposites, and the scene where Eleanor tells Marie she is to be sent to an abbey seems cruel and mocking, especially as the reader knows that Marie is in love with Eleanor. But later in life, after Marie has become abbess, the two women meet again, not quite as equals, but as two female leaders who understand each other’s struggles better than any of their companions could. From that point, the two women begin a strong and affectionate correspondence.
Men are strangely absent from the narrative, even more so than one would expect from a book about nuns. In retrospect, I cannot recall if a man is ever referred to by name in Matrix or merely referred to as the father or husband of a female character. In Marie’s memories of life at court, we only learn of the ladies, nothing of the men. Even when Marie begins having visions, they are always of the Virgin Mary (and, on one occasion, Eve) and never of Jesus. Her life is entirely without male influence. She was raised by a mother, but not a father; as a teenager at court, she is surrounded by women; and the abbey is, of course, populated by women, and Marie later guards the abbess by building a labyrinth, ensuring men cannot get into the grounds. It is perhaps because Marie has never seen herself reflected in the eyes of a man that is able to develop her notions of what a woman should be and what she should want.
Original and character-driven, Matrix is a must-read for lovers of historical fiction. While the time period initially seems difficult to relate to–the Crusades are ongoing and people bathe only a few times a year–the characters are as relatable as any modern characters. The relationships between the nuns are not unlike that of office colleagues, with personality clashes and strange alliances. And when Eleanor and Marie are treated with distrust for being powerful women, you realize that not much has changed over time.
Book Club Menu:
I haven’t gone too literal with this month’s book club menu. If I did that, you’d be feeding your book club nun-approved turnip soup and brown bread. While I have no doubt that Heidi Swanson, or some other great vegetarian cook, could make turnip soup into something delicious with nods to two or more different types of cuisine, I’m not Heidi Swanson. So we are going with a seasonal menu for appetizers and then a dessert that is more book appropriate.
I knew that any book club menu for Matrix would involve apricots. One thing that Marie takes from the court of Eleanor of Aquitane is a couple of apricots. She later plants the pits, and the trees flourish, much like Marie, in the new soil. Of course, it is November, and apricots are very much out of season, so I worked with dried apricots. Initially, I thought maybe cookies, like a rugelach, but then I remembered that I have been meaning to make an olive oil cake. If you’ve never had an olive oil cake, don’t be concerned about the olive oil flavor. It’s very delicate and it complements sweeter flavors surprisingly well.
- Roasted Potato Rounds with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche (recipe below)
- Veggies with your favorite dip(s)
- Apricot Amaretto Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Glaze (recipe below)
- Rosé sparkling wine
- Non-alcoholic sparkling cider
Roasted Potato Rounds with Smoked Salmon and Crème Fraiche
- Two large potatoes, sliced into thin rounds
- Olive oil
- 6 oz smoked salmon
- Crème fraiche
- Chives, washed, dried, and minced
- Everything but the bagel seasoning (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 425.
- Slice your potatoes into thin rounds (less than 1/4 inch). Brush each side of the potato rounds with olive oil and arrange in a single layer on cookie sheets. (You’ll likely need two cookie sheets to avoid overlap.) Slightly salt and pepper your potato rounds.
- Roast for 10 minutes, then flip your potato rounds, and roast for another 10 minutes. While your potatoes are roasting, slice your salmon into small thin slices.
- Top each potato round with a slice of smoked salmon, a drop of crème fraiche, Everything But the Bagel seasoning, and chives.
Recommended wine pairing: Rosé sparkling wine.
Alternate wine pairing: Blanc de Blanc
Variations: Since not everyone is a fan of smoked salmon, another option would be to use a half slice (or a third of a slice, depending on the size of your potato slices) of turkey bacon in place of the smoked salmon. If going the turkey bacon route, consider broiling the potato rounds briefly with cheddar cheese before adding the toppings.
If you can’t find crème fraiche, either sour cream or plain Greek yogurt would be good substitutes.
Apricot Amaretto Olive Oil Cake
My freezer is now full of this cake, as I had to make this three times before I got the recipe exactly how I wanted it. I guess the upside of that is I now know the baking times for a cake pan (actually I used a pie pan), mini loaves, and muffins. I also have tried this with lemon glaze and lemon cheese frosting and can say that the lemon glaze was definitely preferred.
- 3/4 cup dried apricots, chopped
- 1/4 cup Amaretto
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 cups flour
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 eggs
- 3/4 cup milk
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Grease your pan or muffin tin or loaf pans and set aside.
- Mix together apricots, Amaretto, and vanilla in a small bowl and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, beat 3 eggs, and then add milk, olive oil, and sugar.
- Mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Fold in the apricot Amaretto mixture.
- Pour the batter into your cake pan or muffin tins. Baking times are 40-50 minutes for a cake pan; 30-35 minutes for mini loaf pans; and 20 minutes for muffins.
Lemon Glaze (optional)
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- ½ cup powdered sugar
Mix together until smooth. Pour over cooled cake or loaves or muffins.