Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Smile, by Donna Jo Napoli

At the end of the 15th century in Florence, Elisabetta dreams of a beautiful life at her country villa, wedded to the kind but hesitant Giuliano. But these girlish fantasies are not to be as Giuliano is a Medici and events are about to overtake her beloved republic. The years pass, tragedies strike, and her world changes around her, but every opportunity that disappears creates new ones to replace it. And while she keeps her friends and stays true to the things that are important to her, Elisabetta finds her life taking her places she had never imagined. Life is truly much more complicated than she ever imagined. By the time that a decade has passed and the book is closing, culminating in "Mona Lisa" posing for the world's most famous portrait, Napoli has created a parallel literary study to rival the complexity of Lisa's smile.

While the material Napoli has to work with is formidable and fruitful, it in no way diminishes the stunning achievement that this novel truly is. Napoli has written several previous works placed in medieval Italy, but this is easily the best. It underscores her striking command of the historical novel. The historical detail is lovely but never crowds out the narrative or the characters (who are delightful). One could nit pick and note how she grows impatient with her story and rushes it forward towards the end (a problem she also had in Hush) but overall the work is well-developed. Elisabetta is an interesting heroine who stays within the cultural bounds of her time while being vibrant to a modern mind. This is easily one of the best books I have read in the last year. Highly recommended.

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