A fictionalized retelling of a famous murder in 16th-century Rome.
Smith (Oliver in Bronze, 2012) brings to life the story of Beatrice Cenci, a Roman aristocrat who suffers the abuse and violent temper of her father, Francesco. Francesco’s behavior is known far and wide, but money and the unjust class system have him hopping in and out of jail, tormenting Beatrice, her brothers and the staff of the Cenci household. Beatrice is eventually sent away to the Cencis’ family home in La Petrella del Salto, where she, her brothers and her secret lover hatch a plan to be rid of Francesco once and for all. But things don’t go as planned, and Beatrice finds herself caught in a swirl of money, religion and power, as the pope and the authorities of the Inquisition struggle to deal with the widely known motivation for her crimes while keeping the peace. By turns an arrogant aristocrat, a woman struggling to break free of society’s rigid expectations, and a crafty and stubborn conspirator, Beatrice is a complex character who grows and changes as the novel progresses. Smith digs deeply into Beatrice’s character, painting a realistic and compelling if not entirely likable portrait of the famous historical figure. The weakest part of the story may be Smith’s occasional efforts to inject commentary on gender roles of the time: Beatrice says things like “Just because I’m a girl, you think I don’t want things?” and “What man would ever want an over-educated wife?” True or not, these expository lines somewhat break the immersion the rest of the novel fosters by seeming out of place with what the reader sees of Beatrice, especially since her situation is about much more than gender-based oppression. Though these lines feel forced and shallow compared to the depth of the rest of the story, overall Smith avoids any easy answers, and the book churns with a brutal, lyrical physicality of bodies, torture and lust that paints a vivid and readable portrait of the time period.
Thoughtful, well-researched and passionate.