YA author Cullen’s foray into adult fiction features a groundbreaking female Renaissance painter but doesn’t give her much to do.
Sofonisba Anguissola’s father, an impoverished Genoan count, bucked convention to secure her the finest artistic training. Now Sofi, who signs her work Virgo, is studying in Rome with Michelangelo. She takes advantage of her chaperone Francesca’s ill-advised absence one day in 1559 to consummate her infatuation with Tiberio, another of the maestro’s apprentices. Their tryst is interrupted (too late for Sofi’s virginity) by Michelangelo himself, and shortly thereafter Francesca whisks her disgraced charge back home to Cremona. Languishing in hopes of a proposal from Tiberio, Sofi receives instead a summons from the court of Felipe II of Spain. The king engages her as a drawing instructor and lady-in-waiting to his new bride, Elisabeth de Valois, 14-year-old daughter of Henri II of France. Sofi’s artistic aspirations and thwarted longing for Tiberio are quickly overshadowed by Elisabeth’s travails. Felipe eschews marital relations until she attains puberty, then waits patiently for her to conceive a child. Her mother, dragon-lady Catherine de Medici, tries to micromanage the marriage from afar. Soon, Sofi is Elisabeth’s most trusted confidante, supplanting less loyal courtiers like Felipe’s disgruntled sister Doña Juana and his mistress Eufrasia. The young queen is surrounded by a cadre of attractive young men, including the king’s handsome young half brother, Don Juan (no relation to the legendary rake). He captures Elisabeth’s heart, and their love threatens to doom both the queen and her allies. The author neglects Sofi’s artistic and personal development in favor of a more conventional emphasis on romance—mostly a spectator sport for the painter at the Spanish court.
Covering little more than a third of Sofi’s life, this love-obsessed narrative leaves plenty of room for a sequel, but no one’s likely to be terribly interested unless it offers a more three-dimensional portrait of the artist.