A young woman in second-century Rome progresses from pampered aristocrat to Christian martyr in this second novel from Italian screenwriter Ferri (Enchantments, 2005).
Cecilia’s 15th birthday marks her entry into the marriage market, and the headstrong young Roman is not a happy camper. “It was a HORRIBLE birthday,” she tells her diary. Since the early deaths of her siblings, only-child Cecilia has been given the privileges of a male heir. Her doting father Paulus is a Prefect, an important imperial official, while her less affectionate mother, Lucilla, remains in mourning for the babies she lost. Cecilia wants to stay footloose for another year, hanging out with her best friend Lucretia, whose solution to marriage to an older man is taking a lover. Her diary entries, rather than immersing the reader in another time and place, are reminiscent of the writings of a moody contemporary teenager with a difficult mom (Lucilla has become the frenzied disciple of an Egyptian goddess). But it’s the mother who gets her way, and Cecilia is still 15 when she’s married off to rich, handsome Valerian. The marriage quickly turns sour; Cecilia discovers he is two-timing her with the maid. There are potentially dramatic moments here, including the Chariot Games in which Valerian’s jealous brother poisons horses, but Ferri fails to exploit them. She cannot manage transitions. One moment Cecilia and Valerian are engaged in torrid, adversarial love-making, the next Cecilia has had a vision of God’s grace and is groping for “a language like feathers, like embroidery” to describe her newfound Christianity, which leads her to associate with slaves and minister to outcasts. There’s yet another missed opportunity as Ferri passes over Cecilia’s betrayal by that evil brother-in-law; next thing we know, she’s in a cell. There’s little suspense as a magistrate interrogates her and Cecilia, armored now in improbably high-flown rhetoric, stands by her faith and goes serenely to her death.