A New York neurosurgeon finds herself in medieval Siena facing a career change, plague, and true love.
Beatrice Trovato, 33, is ripped from her surgical work by the untimely death of her brother, Ben, a historian who was researching a persistent mystery about his adopted home, Siena, Italy: why, besides misfortune, rats, and fleas, had post-pandemic Siena never quite recovered its prominence as a Tuscan city-state compared to its rival, Florence, which the bubonic plague also attacked? Taking a sabbatical from brain surgery, Beatrice moves into Ben’s centuries-old Siena row house and sifts through dusty archives, intent on continuing her brother’s quest. While in a church, perusing the journal of early Renaissance fresco master Gabriele Accorsi, she blacks out and somehow (the physics of time travel are not this novel’s concern) wakes up in 1347 Siena. There follows an entertaining junket as Beatrice searches for the proper medieval garb (narrowly escaping the Sienese wardrobe police), enjoys the food (Ur-farm-to-table), and communicates fluently with 14th-century Tuscans using modern Italian (linguistic niceties are also not a concern). Her rare, for a woman, literacy skills land Beatrice a job as a scribe at Siena’s Ospedale, the local monastery/hospital/poorhouse, where she copies Dante manuscripts, legal contracts, and other documents. She meets Gabriele, who’s been hired to paint a religious mural outside her workroom wall. After he rescues her from a monastery fire, their very chaste courtship begins. Accorsi had already imagined her and painted her into other work, which she had puzzled over in the 21st century. When he takes her home to meet his family, they turn out to live in Ben’s future house. Meanwhile a subplot reveals more about the enigmas Ben was pursuing—involving the Florentine Medicis. A trip to Sicily, where the plague begins, more time travel, life-threatening illness, and other trials, virtual and literal, ensue before the novel’s questions, mainly involving personal lives as opposed to Back to the Future ripple effects, are answered.
The realities of day-to-day existence in 1340s Europe are so viscerally represented that readers will readily accept the fanciful premise.