Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorato, reviewed by Charlene Jones

St. Martin's Press, 2011; 380 pages $16.99

If you’re not a picky reader you’ll find The Daughter of Siena a page-turner. But, alas, for readers like me, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and when it comes to reading fiction, it’s also a distracting thing.

Although the story of The Daughter of Siena rings with  intrigue, with a love readers recognize as destined to unfold in spite of horrible happenings to our heroine, a few details distract.
New born babies for instance. The author of The Daughter of Siena, Marina Fiorato has her Medici royalty, the otherwise very interesting and historically correct Violante de Medici pouring motherʼs milk into the mouths of her newborn twin boys. Distraction!

Newborn babies do not suckle on nipples ready to spill mommaʼs milk. That takes three days, as colostrums, a thin white substance filled to overflowing with immune-building stuff drips out first. Yes, drips. Often new parents have to express the colostrums into a spoon and then drip it from a syringe into the tiny babyʼs open mouth. Bliss for baby!

Never mind. Letʼs enter the world of Siena in the early sixteenth century and keep turning pages. Until that is Fiorato does it again. This time it’s horses. My family raised horses. Iʼve been around horses most of my life. They do not ever respond well to being eye-balled, even if you blind their wide vision. The reason is the great mare who heads each herd uses direct eye contact to signal punishment to any member. The punishment requires the horse must leave the herd for a short time. Banished! Exiled!

Only when the mare lowers her eyes in response to the gentle, direct eye contact of the offender, is he or she allowed back. Horses are deeply social animals. To be left outside their herd for even a short time is big punishment.

If you stare into the eyes of a horse, therefore, he or she will try to back up, will skit and skirt around because direct eye contact signals they have done something wrong and something bad is going to happen.

Thatʼs the trouble with a little knowledge, bits of trivia about the world. It can get in the way when reading an otherwise satisfying book, such as The Daughter of Siena. One is pushed from the entertainment, one rises from it, distracted, rather like a fly on fresh meringue. Now, is it possible to have a fly, which weighs a certain amount, on top of meringue?

I donʼt know the answer to that and canʼt be expected to, just as I must not expect writers to have all details of every bit of life at the drip of an ink pen. However, writers must have details of all their characters in place throughout the book. Fiorato on page 42 states unequivocally: “In fact the horseman didnʼt remember a time when he had ever been afraid.” 

A few pages later when we know the handsome horseman as Riccardo Bruni, Fiorato writes with flourish: “Riccardo, his knees giving way with fear, allowed himself to be dragged away” (p.115). She continues: “Ricardo threw up again and again into the ashes, and as he emptied his stomach on to the razed ground he vowed never to be afraid again” (p116).

Call me picky, but I like consistency in my characters. If you tell me on p 42 someone has never been afraid, Iʼll buy in. Iʼm gullible. I want to believe. I want that character to never have felt fear. Then, if you tell me on page 115 and 116 heʼs throwing up with fear, I lose confidence. It makes the rest of the story feel less authentic.

I did finish the book. I finished it in part to be able to write this review. I pushed past the description of starlings that fly up in the sky over and over and over again. I read past the use of the word “gainsay” as in quarrel or disagree with, three times through about twenty pages.

I pushed past because the book has one quality of really good writing: a great story. The accurate history of Violante de Medici, her unrequited love, her determination to create a more stable city out of Siena, and especially the intrigue involving a yearly horse race, makes for a good page turning experience. The historicity of Siena in the early 1500ʼs reads in a compelling, fascinating manner.

I understand not all editors know everything and therefore some details of horse sense, and babies at the breast escape notice. My question is how editors and writer alike might miss the inconsistency of the character Riccardo Bruni, and the repetition of starlings. But then, perhaps I am too easily distracted by a little knowledge and too ready to gainsay.

Charlene Jones has two books of poetry to her credit, as well as several individual poems published in many North American magazines, and is at work on her first novel. In addition, Charlene writes for the Musselman’s Lake Residents Association website (here), is the Musselman Lake Correspondent for the Stouffville Free Press. You can read some of Charlene’s poetry here and here, her review of R.D. Cain’s Cherry Beach Express here, and a short essay here.

See Brian Henry's schedule here, including writing workshops and creative writing courses in Kingston, Peterborough, Toronto, Mississauga, Brampton, Georgetown, Oakville, Burlington, St. Catharines, Hamilton, Dundas, Kitchener, Guelph, London, Woodstock, Orangeville, Newmarket, Barrie, Gravenhurst, Sudbury, Muskoka, Peel, Halton, the GTA, Ontario and beyond.

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