I, Mona Lisa – Review – ****

I-Mona-Lisa-coverLook! It’s not a memoir! It’s fiction! I still remember how to read fiction!

I never got into Philippa Gregory (should I rethink this?) or historical bodice rippers, so I really didn’t expect to like this book at all. Shows what I know.

Last summer, I spent 6 weeks in Italy (4 on an archaeology course, 2 travelling), and fell in love with Florence, as so many do. I’m not sure whether it would have been better to have read this book before the trip – although it probably wouldn’t have meant anything to me then. Now that I’ve experienced these places for myself, the locations and monuments are real, instead of fantastic imaginary fantasies. Reading the book now was kind of reliving that wonderful trip.

I, Mona Lisa is an alternative history of 15th and early 16th century Italy, centering around the character of Lisa Gherardini, also known as the Mona Lisa herself. The story follows Lisa’s life and the creation of the famous painting, and weaves it neatly into the tumultuous events occurring in and around Florence at the time. Kalogridis does take some incredible liberties with history and what we know of the Mona Lisa, but I’m actually not sure how much of that is her fault – the book was published in 2006 (therefore presumably written in 2004/2005), and a lot of what we know of the Mona Lisa came to light in 2005 (see the above link). At any rate, I’ve decided it would be helpful to read books like this with one hand on the keyboard and one eye on Google. That way, the author can draw you into history with intrigue (murder! sex! sword fights!) and atmosphere, and you can be sure not to replace recorded history with half-remembered fictions from some book you once read.

As for the story itself, I was really impressed at the portrayal of Lisa’s relationship with her father, and how the tragedy of fictional Lisa’s life is real tragedy, not princess tragedy, giving the story real stakes. I must confess I called most of the twists before they happened (save the double one), but still found the book compelling. It’s a lesson on how to write twists, really, because no matter how clever the author, someone is going to figure it out, always, so you might as well make the story enjoyable beyond the cheap tricks.

The themes of prophecy, repetition and drowning were very effectively done, and the skill with which concepts like religion, religious insanity, sympathy for murdered and the insane, art, and politics was comforting – I felt like I was in very good hands while reading the novel.

In short, I think I’ve been turned – I should read historical fiction more often. I, Mona Lisa may not have been too historically accurate on the personal life details, but it was great with the big picture, and the writing was engrossing. Plus, Jeanne Kalogridis seems like a super cool woman.

Cannonball Read: 41/52

(Cannonball Read V: 2/36)

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Posted on February 7, 2013, in 100 things in 1000 days, Book Reviews, Books, Cannonball Read 5 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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