Essex delineates the confusion of historical events and historically accurate personalities with clarity, but she never...

LEONARDO’S SWANS

In her third historical novel (Pharaoh, 2002, etc.), Essex shifts her focus to 15th-century Italy, where politics and art determine the private ambitions and intrigues of the Estes sisters.

Intellectual Isabella marries the handsome soldier Francesco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, in 1490, when she is 15. The following year Isabella’s younger, tomboyish sister Beatrice marries the older, more controversial Ludovico, future Duke of Milan and patron of the wily Leonardo da Vinci, who creates his art according to his own schedule, despite Ludovico’s best attempts to control him. Leonardo has used Ludovico’s current mistress as the model for his classic The Lady with Ermine. During Beatrice’s wedding festivities, Isabella sees the painting, recognizes Leonardo’s genius and determines that the Maestro must paint her too. Meanwhile, Ludovico, for whom the adolescent Beatrice is little more than a baby-making machine, flirts with Isabella. Drawn to Ludovico’s intellect and his ambition, Isabella carries on a torrid year-long correspondence with Ludovico, but events and Francesco’s jealous suspicion keep them apart. Beatrice longs for her husband’s affection. When she finally gives Ludivico an ultimatum, her sudden gumption charms him into love and fidelity. Now Isabella, stuck in the boonies of Mantua, is the one pining, not for Ludovico but for the immortality Leonardo’s portrait would bestow. Unfortunately, protocol demands that Beatrice be painted first, and Beatrice does not want to be painted. For her, immortality resides “at the end of my husband’s cock.” With Beatrice’s help, Ludovico uses Milan’s fortune in military and political intrigue. Beatrice dies in 1495, age 22, after discovering Ludovico has cheated on her again. After Ludovico’s ultimate defeat by the French in 1499, Isabella, safe in Mantua because Francesco has not involved himself in Ludovico’s battles, invites Leonardo to visit. He sketches Isabella, but never completes the painting.

Essex delineates the confusion of historical events and historically accurate personalities with clarity, but she never quite achieves a sense of human urgency.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2006

ISBN: 0-385-51706-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2005

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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