It takes courage to write historical novels. What is there to say about characters known the public knows from books and television series? Kate Quinn answers this question brilliantly in THE SERPENT AND THE, a novel about Giulia Farnese and Rodrigo Borgia, who became Pope Alexander VI. First of all, she turns Giulia and Rodrigo into freshly minted figures about whom the reader is compelled to care.Then she adds political intrigue, elegantly restrained descriptions of love making and several challenges to preconceptions about Renaissance mores.Her stage is Rome at the end of the Cinquecento though there are forays to Capodimonte. Her Giulia is an eighteen-year-old provincial when she marries aristocratic Orsino Orsini and moves from “..simpler surroundings–the trees and lakes of Capodimonte… (to) the basilicas and loggias of Rome.” Up to then, her claim to fame is her beauty, ” ‘Breasts like white peaches, a pale column of a neck, a little face all rosy with happiness–and hair. Such hair, glinting gold in the sunlight…Dark blond, the color of crystallized honey ..shot (with) streaks of yellow-gold, apricot-gold and white-gold …that ..covered (her) in great slow ripples all the way to (her) feet.” Ecstatically happy her wedding day, Giulia finds out before long that her marriage is not quite what she expected. Enter Cardinal Borgia, whose biretta is firmly set on winning her. Despite being many years her senior and the father of several children, he courts her passionately, lavishing her with his Catalan charm plus gifts of pearls, purebred horses, and Murano glassware engraved with diamond point. How’s a girl to resist? Borgia’s courtship takes place while Rome is in turmoil. Ailing Pope Innocent VIII quaffs a daily “…dram of blood from the veins of virgin boys, as his doctors suggest, but gets no better. The Roman plebs assemble to loot the homes of the rich the moment the pope dies.As tensions mount, Giulia dithers until she meets young Lucrezia Borgia, whose pleas for her lecherous father’s cause are most persuasive. Giulia makes a decision, “…Come to me, he said…I was too breathless to reply, but not too breathless to look around…” That look is her defining moment.She becomes the cardinal’s concubine with eyes wide open.She may be biddable, but she is no victim. Carmelina, the mysterious Venetian cook who arrives on the scene on Giulia’s wedding day, is also a woman who makes her own choices. She carries with her stolen recipes, the mummified hand of a saint and a huge secret.After rescuing the wedding banquet from certain disaster, she becomes a provider of delicacies that make the reader’s mouth water: veal with morello cherries, bergamot pears with cloves, shad in a sauce of cinnamon and cloves, marzipan tourtes, crostatte of quinces and apple, lemony sardines and much more. Luckily, her patron is a true gourmande who eats when she’s happy, sad or just in between. Then there is Leonello, a small person who flings barbed comments as likely to hurt as the Toledo blades he throws with deadly accuracy. Bookish, damaged, and somber he overshadows both Juan and Cesare Borgia, Pope Alexander’s sons.As Giulia s bodyguard, but when it is time to guard Giulia from the invading French, there is no question of he must do. Readers of adventure stories will love this book and so will travelers, lovers of history, mysteries and romance. This BABETTE’S FEAST,LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and APHRODITE: A MEMOIR OF THE SENSES,rolled into one, but make no mistake, Quinn’s style is all her own. She rises to challenge of making an old story new and she does so with virtuosity.I cannot wait for next novel.
Despite its sinister title, STRANGLED IN PARIS, a crime novel by Claude Izner, the pseudonym of two French sisters, Lilliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, is as bonbon of a story filled with luscious tidbits on the architecture, art, and notables, of nineteenth century Paris. In the course of tracking down the murderer of a velvet masked, expensively dressed working class woman, newly married bookkeeper Victor Legris and his brother-in-law Joseph Pignot also search for the meaning of the the black unicorn engraved on the pendant she had been wearing at the time of her death. Two other murders follow in rapid succession, but this time the victims belong to the upper class. All they seem to have in common, is their membership in the Black Unicorn Society the goal of which goal is to find the philosopher’s stone.
As if this were not intriguing enough, a stellar cast of characters orbits the Legris-Pignot duo–Victor’s wife, the enchanting painter Tasha, his partner Kenji Mori, Joseph’s termagant of a mother, Euphrosine, Joseph’s wife, Iris and a group of eccentric book lovers. They take the reader on a tour of streets where he might rub shoulders with Zola, Eric Satie, Claude Debussy and Stephane Mallarme. They serve up tidbits on concerts attended by the novelist Huysman, whose stepfather was part-owner of a Parisian book-bindery. This is no surprise. Besides being experts in nineteenth century Paris, Korb and Lefreve are bouquinistes, second-hand booksellers on the banks of Seine. The also seem to know the Parisian art scene inside out. Tasha’s vernissage, for example, takes place at the gallery of Deyfusard Tadee Natanson where one can imagine Misia Sert, Natanson’s wife and her coterie, which included Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir Monet, Redon, Gide, Proust, Faure,and Diaghilev. Her friends, the Nabis painters Vuillard and Bonnard were in attendance.
Art, history, humor are only a few of the delights of STRANGLED IN PARIS. The way it breaks so many of the rules urged upon English-speaking crime fiction by self-described arbiters of literary taste gives it a nostalgic flavor, as if the sister Korb and Lefevre were chaneling Dumas and Zola with their lovely long sentences and their lavish use of the passive tense.Their opening sentence is, “The storm was battering the Normandy coast” rather than the prescribed “The storm battered the Normandy coast.”The crime does not happen in very first pages, as recommended by so many how-to write a mystery formulas. It meanders through Normandy where a sailor rescues the victim of a shipwreck, moves on to Paris until, at page 35, poor Loulou meets her doom. What follows is a convoluted plot that brings in the appalling social conditions of a century when industrialization brought prosperity to some without lifting the masses from dire poverty
There is social mobility for some. Euphrosine Pignot, for example, is a former vegetable seller at Les Halles, recently elevated to resident-in-chief of the Legris-Mori-Pignot household, “An imposing thickset woman, her hair drawn into a tight bun bristling with pins, appeared at the door armed with a ladle.”
‘Incomparable Aphrodite, guardian of this fairy castle, might I humbly request an interview with Monsieur Legris on a private matter?'” Thus, on page 43, painter Maurice Laumier detaches Victor Legris and Jojo Pignot from their book selling duties so that they can find out who did away with the beautiful Loulou of the velvet mask.In the course of their inbvestigation they come face to face with horrors middle and upper class Parisian usually ignore.
There are plenty of social ills in nineteenth century Paris–abortions are illegal but there is no safety net for impoverished mothers and their children, working conditions are appalling for those who labor fourteen hours a day at ateliers de couture, making fancy frocks for the rich, housing conditions for the poor are dismal, “Two identical buildings…formed the outer edge of a large area in which some crazed architect had piled up flimsy shacks, mouldy sheds, and a heap of worm eaten buildings whose windows were gaping holes open to the elements and whose roofs were worn away by wind and rain. The unpaved streets gradually disintegrating, leaving large craters filled with mud and rubbish. This cramped and dirty cesspit was home to gaggles of pale children, mangy dogs, prostitutes, pimps, the unemployed, old men and tramps.” Cruelty to animals–a reliable indication of a dysfunctional society–is rampant. Description of the suffering inflicted on animals at an abattoir is enough to turn anyone into a vegetarian.
STRANGLED IN PARIS flows past a somber background but Korb and Lefevre have such a deft touch that just like Paris itself, the story”fluctuat nec mergitur–it is tossed by the waves but it does not sink.” Sometimes, the sisters’ Gallic humor is barbed enough to skewer the pretentious of a xenophobe who thus justifies France’s imperialistic aspirations in Asia, “The Celestial Empire and its satellites have no real language– so let’s give them one.” Often, it is based on lighter material, such as why famous restaurant is called Le Lapin Agile. Rich as a Paris-Brest, this is a book to enjoy at any season, but in the dog days of summer it is a cool as a dip in the Seine.
COUNTRY GIRL, Edna O’Brien’s memoirs is a book of exquisite beauty. The prologue alone is jewel that shines so softly one regrets time spent reading gaudier works. There immense emotional restraint in O’Brien’s account her visit to a National Health clinic where a nurse checked her hearing before she delivered this bombshell,
“You are quite well, but with regard to your hearing, you are a broken piano.”
O’Brien’s second paragraph is one of the most poignant I have ever read, “At home the garden was waiting, the second flowering of the roses, washed pink and blousy, but beautiful, and the leaves on the fig trees were a ripple as birds darting in and out, chasing each other, half in courtship and half in combat.” Everything a writer needs to know about graceful transition, vivid imagery, muted sadness and a fierce determination to go on is there.No self-pity, no appeal for sympathy, no literary pony tricks. Just this virtuoso arrangement of words that go straight to reader’s heart.
Verbal virtuosity is an Irish gift, so say the Irish. If that is so, this gift is one that brought O’Brien great joy and great sorrow. She was in her mid-twenties,a mother of two, married to the writer Ernest Gebler, when she wrote THE COUNTRY GIRLS, the first of her twenty-one novels. “The words tumbled out, like the oats that on threshing day tumble-down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funneled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men’s eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise.” It took her three weeks to complete that work, which brought her instant acclaim. Gebler, whose bestselling THE PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE: THE VOYAGE OF THE MAYFLOWER had been made into a movie, grew resentful of her success. after he read her manuscript, “…he said something that was the death knell of the already ailing marriage–‘You can write and I will never forgive you.'” Gebler could not accept that the young woman he “lifted…from behind a shop counter…launching (her) into a world of literature and refinement…Though void of intellect and or cognitive powers (she)was already passing herself off as a writer.”
In fact, O’Brien had been writing all her life although when she and Gebler met, she was working at a pharmacy, “…training for a profession that was not my chosen one but convinced that I would meet poets and one day I would be admitted into the world of letters.” Ireland was no promised land for a woman of literary aspirations and then as now, a writer is someone whose work has been published. As it often happens to the published of women trapped in the pink ghetto of the print media, O’Brien’s lifestyle column for a railway magazine, was easy to dismiss. “With no time to walk the city or interview people, my topics tended to be somewhat generalized and ranged from the joys of golden autumn evenings to culinary skills for tossing a Shrove Tuesday pancake…” She adds, ruefully, “It was a long way from James Joyce.” Nevertheless the column led to newspaper articles,the first of which almost ran under the wrong byline, “My pride in having it accepted was very great, knowing that people at home would read it and my mother might forgive me my literary aspirations…..I had gone to collect the guinea due to me …There, to my delight was the warm sheet of newspaper…but my instead of my name, it was my sister’s.”
There is so much to recommend this book, that I, who love memoirs, who list Nabokov’s SPEAK MEMORY among the books I would pull out of a burning house, find myself nearly speechless.I want to say that I know of no portraits more sensitively painted that of Carnero’s, the illiterate farm hand who taught O’Brien that men can be loving. I want to talk to say that she recounts her harrowing flight from her despicable husband with the same restraint she talks of the dreadful news she received at the Health Clinic. I want to say that the prologue of her memoirs is one of the most moving I have ever read and I have been read for well over sixty years. Most beautiful, best,lyrical, flawless, touching are the words that come to mind, but they can never match the power of this book. A master of ambience, a wizard of situations, a teller of enchanting stories also fall short of describing O’Brien as she is in this book–a woman who, upon finding out that she is going deaf, who recollects all that writing has brought her–fame, money, the friendship of women such as Jacqueline Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, as well as barbed criticism. She catalogs some of the hurtful labels applied to her throughout her career, “Bargain basement Molly Bloom…Barbara Cartland of long-distance Republicanism…. past her sell-by date as a writer” are among the insults she remembers. No matter. She lists them, then takes out a cookbook, bakes a batch of soda bread and starts writing her memoirs.
O’Brien became a writer despite her mother’s opposition, her husband’s cruelty, her fellow citizens’ harsh criticism. She wrote despite being an Irish Catholic woman schooled to do as she was told. She also wrote because few women in the world can match the primeval strength of an Irishwoman with a cause. Once she heard a man recited, upon seeing Maude Gonne on the streets of Dublin, the words Yeats had written for her,
Will gather and not know it walks the very street
Whereon a thing once walked that seemed a burning cloud.”
It seems typical of O’Brien not notice that the does not notice that can be said of her,