Monday, May 31, 2010
When the beautiful Lucrezia Buti and her sister Spinetta arrive on the doorstep of the Convent Santa Margherita, they are admitted with open arms and ushered into the simplicity of cloistered life. But for Lucrezia this new life is one of sadness, for until her father's unexpected death, she had been expecting to marry a handsome merchant and live her life as a wife and mother. As Lucrezia comes to fully understand the sacrifices demanded of her, she meets the monk and painter Fra Filippo Lippi. Fra Filippo is also the chaplain to the convent and during one of his routine visits he comes across the stunning Lucrezia and is immediately captured by her beauty. Wishing to use her as a model for several commissions of the Madonna that he is to paint, Fra Filippo inveigles an arrangement for Lucrezia to visit his home and workshop so that she may model for him. But Lucrezia's visits are not going unnoticed by others with great power. As Fra Filippo begins to paint the young woman, he becomes hopelessly in love with her, a dangerous situation for a monk and a novice to find themselves in. As the two become conspirators in art, unseen hands begin to threaten both of their futures, and Fra Filippo and Lucrezia begin a frightening downward spiral amidst the wondrous paintings that their forbidden union creates. In this lush and dark creation, two people long to give their souls to each other but find heartache for they have already given them to God.
When I was offered the chance to review this book for my site, I was surprised to discover that it had in fact been written by two bloggers! I know there are probably a lot of bloggers out there who are working on novels of their own, or wish to, but I have never had the pleasure of reading something written by a member of my own community. I was pretty excited about reading the book, and in the end, I felt like the collaboration between Albanese and Morowitz made for a wonderful and engrossing read.
When I began this book, I had a feeling that I would already be familiar with the story it tells. A pair of young girls is brought to a convent against their will after their father dies and leaves them penniless. I thought back to Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant, a story that had a very similar beginning. But as the story progressed, I found that this was a very different story indeed. First of all, though Lucrezia did not want to be held as a captive in the convent, she starts to conform into a chaste and virtuous woman very early on. She is humble about the situation that she finds herself in, and instead of fighting with all her might, decides to pray for enlightenment and acceptance. I found this to be a rare attitude, for I can imagine that being placed in a convent and watching your prospects dwindle away would probably be maddening and upsetting, but Lucrezia takes it all in stride and acts with grace.
Fra Filippo was a different creature entirely. As a monk, he is forced to live a chaste life. This is very hard for him to do, and the reader is led to believe that the monk has had several indiscretions with easy women, problems with his finances and a lot of trouble actually completing the commissions that he has been hired to work upon. Fra Filippo is a lover of beauty, and upon seeing Lucrezia for the first time, his soul is rapturous. He has trouble concentrating on his duties as the convent's chaplain due to his hypersensitivity to Lucrezia's face and body. Though he doesn't dare dream about breaking his vows, he has trouble controlling his excitement and ardor for the young girl and works out his own arrangements to have her model for him. Though things begin in innocence, the two are quickly led astray when they realize that their interest in each other is not merely platonic. During these early scenes, I found a lot to admire about Fra Filippo. He had some slightly loose morals at times but he strove to keep himself in check and do what was expected of him as a monk and chaplain.
When an unexpected attack blackens Lucrezia's honor, Fra Filippo is angry and livid. He wishes to protect the young girl from further dishonor and finally reveals his love for her. Though he is a monk, he discovers that his heart's desire has been sitting right in front of him and he is willing to do anything to keep her. There are mounting dangers and pressures for Filippo. Because of his habit of always being behind on his commissions, he is drawing anger from the high placed officials in the church, and various others begin to threaten him about his inappropriate relationship with his young model. These sections were filled with drama and suspense and I found them to be the most interesting of the book. As the monk dodges and weaves out of harm's way, he never suspects that Lucrezia could be in danger as well. Forces mightier than the two are working furiously against them and are beginning to create situations of great danger for them. There is wickedness coming from all directions, and try as they might, the two have a hard time keeping it at bay while still managing to care for one another.
The writing style of this book was extremely atmospheric and easy to become enmeshed in. It portrays this time period very skillfully, and within its historic framework, it also deftly captures and describes the art of its time. I found that while I was reading it was easy to get lost in the place and time that the novel is set in and it was almost as if I could see the sun-soaked streets of Renaissance Italy and smell the gesso that the painter used to capture his detailed paintings. At times the book was darker than I had been expecting but this was not really a hindrance to me. I also loved the look at the internal politics of the convent. Much like the convent portrayed in Sacred Hearts, this was a place where ambition was clothed in the habits of the women walking through its halls. There was a lot of intrigue going on within the convent walls and it was fascinating to discover that these women, who were so far removed from society, were really not all that different from the ones that were free. I think that this was a marvelous aspect of the story and it captured my interest in a lot of ways. I am fast becoming a lover of convent literature and this is one of the books I have to thank for that!
If you are a reader of historical fiction and enjoy books with blended settings, I think this would be a great addition to your collection. Those who love stories about art history or the very intricate life that goes on behind the convent walls would also enjoy this book. Between the intense story it tells, the great attention to detail and the incredible aura it captures, this book made for a wonderful reading experience. A terrific work of historical fiction.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.