Day 952: My Brilliant Friend

Cover for My Brilliant FriendI think my reaction to My Brilliant Friend must be affected by all the hype it has received. That is, I put off reading it because I am often disappointed by novels that are wildly popular. Nothing can live up to the hype, and this novel doesn’t either, but it almost does. It is merciless in its clear-eyed look at the relationship between two frenemies.

The novel begins in the present, where Elena Greco looks back at her relationship with Lila Cerullo. Elena and Lila know each other from childhood. They are neighbors in a rough, poor neighborhood on the outskirts of post-war Naples. From the beginning they are wary, competitive friends. Elena admires Lila’s courage and in school grows to admire her fearless intelligence. But, as the second best in class, Elena finds herself competing with Lila and disliking her secondary position.

Both Lila and Elena are encouraged by their teacher, Maestra Oliviero, but when Lila’s parents won’t allow her to take the exam to enter the equivalent of middle school (I guess) because she has to work, Maestra Oliviero spurns Lila. She continues to study on her own for a while, even helping Elena with her Latin, but eventually, as she gets older, she avoids discussing Elena’s studies as it is too painful. Elena for her part finds herself increasingly isolated from most of her community, because there is no one with whom she can discuss the ideas she is interested in. Only Lila is capable of understanding them, and she begins avoiding these subjects.

Something else Lila and Elena would like to avoid are the Solara brothers, whose father is part of the Camorra crime syndicate. When Elena is a young teenager, the boys attempt to drag her into their car, but Lila stops them by pulling a knife. This action apparently endears her to Marcello Solara, who begins hanging around Lila’s house with the cooperation of her parents.

I can only guess that the effect of this series builds as the reader continues on with it. Certainly, the novel has a climactic ending that makes me wonder what’s coming next.

I felt that the emotions Elena expressed during the novel were immature, but then I had to keep reminding myself that the girls are only 16 at the end of the novel. Elena seems to be totally oblivious of how painful it must be for Lila to hear about her intellectual achievements, and Elena still continues to try to compete with her. Although Lila seems abrupt and dismissive at times, at other times she lets Elena know how she appreciates her.

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Day 948: Sacred Hearts

Cover for Sacred HeartsBest Book of the Week!
Sacred Hearts is another book I read for my Walter Scott Prize project. Although Sarah Dunant is an author I’ve read in the past with moderate enjoyment, I very much enjoyed her novel about the Borgias, Blood & Beauty.

This novel is also set in Renaissance Italy, in 1570 Ferrara. Dunant begins the book by telling us that in the second half of the 16th century, dowries had become so expensive that roughly half the daughters of noble families were consigned to convents, whether willingly or unwillingly.

Suora Zuana is one of that number. When her professor father died years before, she had nowhere to go and her dowry was small. Yes, dowries had to be paid to convents as well, but they were much smaller than those paid with brides.

Her small dowry has not earned Zuana very many comforts in the convent of Santa Caterina, but she has created a valuable role for herself as a healer and dispenser of remedies. She has managed to bring along many of her father’s books, although some of the most valuable were stolen at his death by his students and peers, and she has greatly expanded the convent’s herb garden. Aside from caring for the convent’s ill, she makes medicines for the bishop and others.

At the opening of the novel, she is on her way to drug Serafina, a novice who has been screaming for days, ever since she was forcibly ensconced in the convent by her family. She is a girl from Milan, so no one in the convent is familiar with her family. Suora Zuana is able to calm her, and later they find she has an angelic voice, which delights the convent choir director.

For the sake of everyone’s peace, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, asks Suora Zuana to take Serafina under her wing rather than handing her over to the novice mistress, Suora Umiliana. So, Zuana begins teach Serafina how to prepare medications. None of the sisters know that Serafina has hatched a plot to escape from the convent with her lover, the musician Jacopo.

What Serafina doesn’t understand, although she probably wouldn’t care, is that this is a politically delicate time for Santa Caterina and for all convents in general. Reforms on the heels of the Counter-Reformation have resulted in a cracking down on convents in some cities. Madonna Chiara fears that the convent’s few liberties will be lost, especially if they have a scandal. Their means of making a living will be removed, their orchestras disbanded and performances disallowed, their books will be confiscated, and they will no longer be allowed outside in the garden. Visitors will only be able to see them behind a grating. This is what has been happening throughout Italy.

On the local front, some of the sisters, led by Suora Umiliana, would like the convent to become stricter in its observances, even though it is already strict. Suora Umiliana is a religious zealot who is fascinated by Suora Magdalena, the convent’s “living saint.” Although Suora Magdalena has long been close to death, when she was younger she had fits of ecstasy and suffered from stigmata. Shortly after Serafina arrives at the convent, Magdalena has the first of her fits in years and speaks to Serafina. Later, when Serafina becomes ill, Umiliana thinks she can use her condition to take over control of the convent from Chiara.

Although I was interested in this novel, it took me some time to become really involved in it. I am revealing more about the plot than I usually would, because the description of the book from the blurb about how Suora Zuana comes to care for Serafina does little to convey the depths and power of this novel. For quite a while I had no idea where it was going and wondered how interested I was, but the novel turned out to be very much worth reading. This is one that really sneaks up on you.

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Day 942: Siracusa

Cover for SiracusaNews flash! The Man Booker long list was announced today, and I have actually reviewed one of the books!

* * *

Siracusa is a sometimes shocking story about a disastrous vacation in Italy. Two couples, linked by a friendship between the husband of one and the wife of the other, vacation together with one couple’s pre-teen daughter. The trip this year has been planned by Taylor except for a detour to Siracusa, Sicily, planned by Lizzie. The story alternates among the points of view of the four adults.

Lizzie’s voice seems the most reliable, but all of the adults are unreliable narrators for one reason or another. Lizzie, a writer, is deluded. She is in love with her husband Michael and does not know he is unfaithful. Michael, a formerly famous playwright who has been working on the same novel for years, is a liar who likes power games. He has been cheating on Lizzie with a waitress named Kathy.

Finn is a restaurant owner who smokes too much and is serially unfaithful. His wife Taylor is snobbish and shallow, and she is so overprotective of their 10-year-old daughter Snow that she talks for her. At some point, Taylor begins making a play for Michael, whom both she and Snow adore.

At Siracusa, a tragic chain of events begin when Kathy appears as a surprise for Michael and begins trying to maneuver him out of his marriage. It isn’t until then that Michael realizes he wants to stay with Lizzie.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is complex and interesting, with a shocking conclusion. I was rather freaked out by one of the characters from early in the novel, and my impressions turned out to be right. From starting out to be a fairly mundane story of relationships, this novel works up quite a bit of suspense.

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Day 753: Blood & Beauty

Cover for Blood & BeautyBest Book of the Week!
Blood & Beauty is a historical novel about the Borgia family that shows meticulous research, examining in light of modern findings the legends that have surrounded the family for centuries. It also powerfully evokes the period.

The novel begins with the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. He is clever and ruthless but sentimental about his four illegitimate children. Although historically there is some debate about the birth order of the oldest two sons, Dunant firmly places Cesare as the oldest, followed by Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofrè.

Although the pope loves his children, especially Juan and Lucrezia, their value is largely in the alliances he can make through their marriages. Cesare’s value, on the other hand, is to back up his father on the religious front. He begins as a cardinal, although he is unsuited to his religious profession and eventually throws it off to become a commander of armies.

Juan’s marriage is first, but the novel is mostly concerned with the relationship among Pope Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia. It is much more complex than and different from what you may have heard. It is Lucrezia’s misfortune to be married into families that become enemies of the Borgias because of shifting alliances. This is particularly true of her second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, whom she loves.

Dunant remarks in the afterward that the Borgias have not deserved their evil reputation. Certainly they were rapacious and ruthless—and more interested in the good of the Borgias than anything else—but so too were most of the great families of Italy at that time. In this novel, alliances are made and discarded at will by most of the great families.

This novel is historical fiction at its best. None of the characters are invented or romanticized, and we become immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy.

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Day 670: The Jewels of Paradise

Cover for The Jewels of ParadiseI have read a few of Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti mysteries and liked them well enough. I was intrigued, though, to find The Jewels of Paradise, a recent one-off or perhaps the start of a new series by Leon.

Caterina Pelligrini is an Italian musicologist who has been working as an assistant professor for a university in Manchester. With a doctorate specializing in Baroque opera, she has found employment opportunities hard to come by. She also has not foreseen how much she would miss her home. So, when she hears of an opportunity for a research position in Venice that is to last a few months with the possibility of being extended, she jumps at it.

The position is an unusual one, though, for she knows only that she has been hired to go through some trunks containing recently discovered papers belonging to an unnamed composer. Hired by an impeccable lawyer, Dottor Andrea Moretti, Caterina is employed by two thugs, Scapinella and Stievani. They hope she will find papers showing that one of them has a better claim to the trunks than the other, for they have family legends that this man, a supposedly  rich relative, died with a fortune of jewels.

Caterina is to conduct her research at a foundation that is almost bare of resources. There she finds that the papers belong to Agostino Steffani, a once famous Baroque composer of operas who gave up his career to become a church diplomat. As Caterina investigates, she finds he may have been implicated in the Königsmarck Affair, in which the lover of the wife of the future King George I of England disappeared and was believed to have been murdered.

A faint air of menace haunts the entire project, as Caterina is followed and finds someone has been reading her email. Soon she learns that the position, for which she has moved from England, is only to last a month.

I really enjoyed this tale of mystery in the realm of academic research, although I thought that the physical setting of Venice got short shrift. Still, I find I am drawn to this kind of novel and hope to see more of them from Leon.

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Day 656: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Cover for The Mysteries of UdolphoI valiantly strove to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with about 80% of it read (frustratingly hard to tell with a collection on Kindle), I just couldn’t take it anymore. Although the book is a classic gothic novel, it is extremely long and slow moving, and my mild curiosity about the secrets of the castle could not overcome my feeling that the novel was never-ending.

Radcliffe was known for writing novels that were more realistic than those that had come before in the gothic genre. That is, the events, however unlikely, might actually happen. Heroines are kidnapped, not squashed to death by a giant foot.

Emily St. Aubert’s troubles begin with her father’s death, but not before the two of them take a leisurely several-hundred-page trip through Provence. There she and her father meet the handsome Valancourt, alas only a younger son.

After her father dies, Emily finds she is left destitute except for her estate and goes to live with her fashionable and shallow aunt Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron eventually marries an Italian lout, Count Montoni. Once Emily and her aunt are in his power, he expends all his energy first in trying to force Emily to marry one of his dupes and then in trying to get both women to hand over all their property in France.

About halfway through the nearly 800-page book, Montoni takes them to his castle, Udolpho, in the Italian alps. Here I was expecting things to heat up, and they do a little, with a disappearing previous owner, secret passageways, unnamed but horrible sights, and odd lights on the battlements. On the other hand, Emily spends most of her time looking at the scenery—described in excruciating detail and admired while she is in peril of her life—and painting watercolors. Oh, also writing poems at the drop of a hat that we get to read.

To modern audiences, Emily seems a bit insipid, but her role is to demonstrate the feminine virtues under duress. So, instead of investigating where the secret passage from her bedroom goes or looking at the contents of the heavy chest or trying to escape, she faints and runs away. She does, however, do what she thinks is right most of the time.

So far, although the most famous, The Mysteries of Udolpho is not my favorite of the “horrid mysteries” mentioned in Northanger Abbey that I reported I was reading in a collection. (This novel wasn’t mentioned but is included in the Horrid Novels collection for completeness.)

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Day 620: Literary Wives! The Shoemaker’s Wife

Cover for The Shoemaker's WifeToday is another meeting of Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review a book about being a wife. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

One thing I can say about The Shoemaker’s Wife. It provoked discussion in our household. After reading the novel’s first two paragraphs to my husband, I asked, “Does this qualify as purple prose?” and he answered, “It’s at least very mauve.” In any case, the novel is packed with labored metaphors, some of which leave us readers with very odd mental images—for example, a comparison of the Alps to silver daggers.

The novel is based on the story of Trigiani’s grandparents, a couple who met as teenagers in the Italian Alps and then were separated by circumstances for years. I haven’t read any of Trigiani’s other books, but along with many other writers these days, she doesn’t seem to understand in this novel that making things happen to her characters doesn’t automatically make readers care what happens to them. Her characters have traits, but they don’t have any emotional depth, so we don’t care about them.

A specific example of this comes early in the book, when the girl Enza’s little sister dies. Abstractly, the death of a child is sad, but since we barely know Enza and we just met Stella a few paragraphs before she died, we don’t feel much about it. If we had a sense of the child or the older sister, we would care more.

I was unable to finish this book, so I can’t answer the usual Literary Wives questions about it. Realizing I was not enjoying it at all, I decided to read a quarter of it and if I still felt like I was wasting my time, to stop. It is a very long book, so I read about 120 pages, and Ciro and Enza had just met by then, with Ciro banished to America immediately after. When I quit reading, Ciro was on the ship to New York. So, no answers to questions about how wives are depicted in this book, not even about the main character’s mothers. Ciro’s mother abandons her sons at a convent at the beginning of the book because she can’t support them and is never seen again, and Enza’s mother is a vaguely drawn figure who simply works hard.

All novels aren’t character driven, but for me there has to be something that makes a novel interesting besides the plot. Sometimes it’s the voice of a compelling character, sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a fascination with the subject or world view being described, but it has to be something.

Literary Wives logoWhile I’m writing this, I’m thinking of examples, about how Agatha Christie could create a distinct character in a few sentences, not a nuanced one, but a distinct one nevertheless. I’m thinking how in The Secret Garden we immediately recognize Mary as an unlikable child, but we can see how the fear of waking to find everyone gone from her home in India has made her more demanding, and we sympathize. I’m thinking of how hard I cried when Beth died in Little Women. And I’m thinking how fascinated I was by 18th century Japan in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

Read along with us in February, when we will be reading and commenting on The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Caroly Erickson.