Category Archives: historical fiction

The Scribe of Siena

Unknown-3Melodie Winawer creates a compelling adventure with time travel back to medieval Italy in The Scribe of Siena – history, romance and art mingle with an historic mystery.

Beatrice, a neurosurgeon from New York City inherits a thirteenth century mansion when her brother, a medieval scholar dies suddenly in Siena, Italy.  Soon after she arrives to settle her brother’s estate,  she discovers the journal of the fourteenth century artist, Gabriel Accorsi in her brother’s research paper, and finds her own face in one of his paintings.  Suddenly, she is mysteriously transported to Siena in the year 1347, months before the Bubonic Plague is about to eradicate the city.

Yes, there is romance; yes, the heroine knows more than she can tell; and yes, the parallel between worlds is conveniently accommodated with much of the fourteenth’s century’s inconveniences sublimated.  Yet, despite the trite plot underpinnings, Winawer manages to create a captivating tale full of well-researched historical trappings.  Most of the story takes place in fourteenth century Italy when medieval life was primitive, with Church and art providing respite from the misery of everyday life.  Italian paintings from the Middle Ages were darkly mystical, and Winawer uses this artistic mysticism as the conduit between the modern world and a mysterious 700 year old conspiracy to destroy the city of Siena.  Political intrigue with the Medici family offers a sinister subplot, threatening Accorsi’s life as well as the possible extinction of Siena’s population.

When Beatrice meets Accorsi, of course she falls in love, but her new medieval life also offers her a chance to reinvent herself as she works as the city’s scribe, creating contracts, recording lists, even writing a copy of Dante on parchment.  Winawer creates a strong character – a brilliant neurosurgeon clearly in charge of herself but also with empathy for her patients – who manages to maneuver the unexpected difficulties of her new environment.   Although Beatrice does conveniently revisit the present in time to be saved from the Plague by modern antibiotics, clearly her heart is in the fourteenth century where she eventually finds a new life.

If you are missing the swashbuckling adventure and time travel back to another century of Diane Gabalon (Outlander) or Deborah Harness (Discovery of Witches), try Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena.  

Related Review:   Discovery of Witches

 

 

My Notorious Life

Unknown-1In contrast to the saving graces of the characters in Call the Midwife, the BBC Masterpiece series based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir of her experiences in postwar London, Kate Manning’s heroine in My Notorious Life earns a fortune by helping women give birth and sometimes helping them stop it.  Manning’s midwife is based on the real life of Ann Trow Lohman, known as Madame Restell, who practiced as a “female physician” in New York City in the late eighteen hundreds.

Like Restell, Axie had no medical training and had little formal education.  Manning weaves a story around her poor background and her longing to reunite with her brother and sister after their mother’s death forces them on the orphan train.  Axie eventually lands in the home of an older midwife who teaches her the trade.  Eventually, she marries Charlie, another orphan train victim, and they start a business peddling powders and concoctions to cure women’s ailments.  Soon the business expands to midwifery and abortion.

Although the fictionalized life of the real woman is embellished with romance, adventure, and a great deal of angst, the story stays true to the misery of Victorian times.  When I found the Smithsonian article on Madame Restell, I was amazed at how close Manning came to appropriating her life in fiction.  Manning offers a different ending for her character, and you should read the Smithsonian article after you read the book – no spoiler here, for Restell’s real life was just as compelling as the fictionalized one created for her by Manning.

In an interview, Manning noted her purpose for writing was to produce

“a rip-roaring tale from the 19th century. I wanted to write a good old-fashioned story with plot and character and depth, and I don’t want it to get hijacked by a current political debate that really doesn’t seem to go anywhere, you know.”

She succeeded in 434 pages of vivid Dickensian characters with a commentary on America’s never-ending battle over women’s rights.  If you missed it when it first was published in 2013, you might consider reading it now.

 

Anticipating Alternative History

What if?  Powerful words turned into fictionalized accounts of history can be so much fun.  Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate, his reimagining of the famous debacle that brought down Nixon’s presidency, offers a list of alternate history in fiction in his essay for The New Yorker – Never Happened.

My favorite includes Monica Ali’s An Untold Story, imagining Princess Diana faked her own death, started life over as Lydia Snaresbrook,  and created a new life in a Midwestern American town, appropriately  named Kensington.  Stephen King’s 11/22/63 also captured my attention when he used time travel to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Now Curtis Sittenfeld, author of American Wife which channelled First Lady Laura Bush,  creates a life for Hilary Rodham as if she had never married Bill Clinton.

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Publication date is set for 2019 – we will have to wait for this thriller.

Reviews:

The Miniaturist

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Petronella Oortman’s dollhouse on display at the Rijksmuseum

Using a cabinet currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam built in the late 17th century to replicate Petronella Oortman’s luxurious townhouse in the center of the city, Jesse Burton creates a tale around a poor eighteen year old girl in an arranged marriage to a wealthy Dutch merchant in The Miniaturist.

As Nella struggles to find a place in her new opulent home, her husband, Johannes, leaves her alone, disappearing for days, never consummating the marriage, while her new unmarried sister-in-law bristles at the competition for control of the household.  To appease her loneliness, Johannes buys Nella a replica of their house – a large doll house – and instructs her to find a craftsman, a miniaturist,  to fill it with miniature furniture.

9780062306845_p0_v2_s192x300Suddenly, the Miniaturist takes control of the plot.  With eerie foreshadowing and obscure messages the Miniaturist predicts Nella’s life, sending her new pieces for her dollhouse before she requests them.  A sudden shocking revelation changes the momentum and story evolves into a cross between an Alfred Hitchcock mystery and Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

I enjoyed every bit, anticipating the next surprise – a betrayal, secret lovers, a baby – with a warehouse of sugar both sweetening and decaying the characters. To be immersed in the drama, you must suspend belief.  Burton paints an authentic picture of the old Dutchmen: the burgermeisters with their forbidding rules of the city, the power and wealth of merchants, and the strict Calvinist Minister dictates – all adding to the intrigue.

Review: The Night Circus

 

The Stars are Fire … and More

To not forget some of the books I read last month, I’m listing them with short reminders.  What have you been reading?  Send me your comments.

9780385350907_p0_v2_s192x300   The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

I eagerly anticipate each new Anita Shreve novel and The Stars Are Fire did not disappoint.  Although the fire in Maine begins the story with horror, Shreve wisely introduces two romantic leads to replace the uptight authoritarian husband who conveniently disappears fighting the fire.  The relief brings romance and a career to the heroine, but her reprieve is not longlasting.  The husband returns, scarred and needy, and more demanding – dangerously vindictive.  Her solution requires courage to save herself  – perhaps the small children motivate her to act.  Happily, all ends well, incluidng the opportune reappearance of a lover, but I’m not sure many women would take the path she did in the nineteen forties.  I cheered her on, thinking how lucky she was to have the haven of a good friend.

9780143130628_p0_v3_s118x184  The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes

Horses and girls – always a good formula..  News of the Kentucky Derby and a documentary on the  Maryland Hunt Cup with Senior Senator, the winning horse given a second chance, inspired me to read The Horse Dancer. (The horse named Boo in the book reminded me of Senior Senator. )

Like all Moyes’ stories, this one has problems and romance, connecting unlikely lives for a happy ending.  When Sarah’s grandfather, a master horseman, has a stroke, the teenager tries to continue caring for herself and her horse Boo, but she is caught one night stealing fishsticks for her dinner.  Natasha, a lawyer recently separated from Mac, a photographer, saves her from jail and eventually offers her the safety of her house.  Although the story has a slow start, when the main characters finally  intersect, the drama improves.  Thrown back together by their mutual concern for Sarah, Natasha and Mac work through a series of obscure and unlikely issues but after a dramatic chase across the English Channel to a French riding school, all ends well, with everyone living happily ever after – even the horse.

Always by Sarah Jio

A quirky romance with a shaky love triangle –  I admit I did skip through and bypass most of the hand wringing episodes. But Jio’s love story kept me reading to find out who the heroine would pick – her first love who reappears as a homeless man twenty years after abandoning a successful career or the old monied handsome swain with a penchant for real estate.  Although most of the incidents seemed unrealistic, Always was a nice distraction.

Follow Your Heart by Susanna Tamaro

Olga is a dying Italian grandmother’s giving advice to her granddaughter through twelve letters, talking about her childhood, her marriage, her secrets, her lovers, her mistakes.  As she relives her experiences, Olga makes peace with herself and leaves her granddaughter with a story explaining who she is and why she acted as she did.  You need to be in the frame of mind for philosophy and a little angst, but this short epistolary gave me some interesting quotes.  Here is one from the last page:

Every time you feel lost, confused, think about trees, remember how they grow.  Remember that a tree with lots of branches and few roots will get toppled  by the first strong wind, while the sap hardy moves in a tree with many roots and few branches.  Roots and branches must grow in equal measure, you have to stand both inside of things and above them, because only then will you be able to offer shade and shelter, only then will you be able to cover yourself with leaves and fruit at the proper season.