Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: Leonardo's Swans by Karen Essex

Leonardo's SwansEver since they were little girls Isabella and Beatrice d'Este were betrothed to very different men. Isabella's fiance is to take her to the country, to the estate of a family knows for breeding the best horses in Italy and she was to become a marquesa. Beatrice's betrothed is a learned man, the regent to the duke of Milan, a renown patron of the arts, a politician like no other and one day Beatrice may become a duchess of greatest city-state in Italy. It's too bad that Isabella has a brilliant mind and loves to collect beautiful works of art and Beatrice wants nothing more than to spend days on her horse. Their sisterly rivalry turns serious when the girls fall in love and begin to fight for the affection of one man and the opportunity to have a great artist paint their portraits.

My favorite thing about this book is that it exposed me to some very interesting people who lived in 15th century Italy. Without it I may have never heard about the incredible Isabella d'Este, may have never looked up the paintings mentioned in this book, may have never thought about Leonardo da Vinci as a man outside of his work.
Ms. Essex did a great job of getting into the women's heads and showing us what they thought and felt at the most important times of their lives. I preferred Isabella not because her character was easier to relate to but because her sections were deeper, more intimate and showed what the ways of the Italian nobility were at the time. She was a woman of great intellect, an art connoisseur, a formidable opponent for any man in the political arena as well as a woman of great beauty, grace and charm. It was fascinating to learn about her and I intend to read more about her in the future.
Leonardo da Vinci is a prominent character in this book but we never get to hear about the events from him. He is always talked about by either Esabella or Beatrice and while their descriptions paint an interesting portrait (no pun intended) it would've been very interesting to get his take on the events of the time and the people with whom he was in such close contact. Throughout the book there are excerpts from Leonardo's notes that are both his reflections about the subjects of his studies and to-do lists that give us a glimpse into the mundane part of his life. These excerpts are not invention of the author, they are actually taken from da Vinci's notebooks and effectively bring the reader closer to the time and the characters of the book.
As impressed as I was by the characters this novel fell a bit flat for me because of the writing. The narrative went from lively scenes that were very engaging to sections that read more like a chronicle and back. Because of this the story didn't hold my interest as much as it could have and I had no trouble setting it down and sometimes even found myself zoning out during the accounts of who invaded whom and who was suspected of whose death. The fact that the narrative often changed between past and present tense from one paragraph to the next didn't help eather and even though eventually I managed to ignore the back and forth between the "is" and the "was" the challenge of having to do it detracted from the enjoyment of the book.
I would recommend this novel to those readers who are interested in learning about Italy at that tumultuous time in history, enjoy fascinating characters and feel they'll be able to ignore the inconsistencies in tense and less than stellar bridges between the scenes that actually had some life to them.


  1. I think I would still enjoy this, as I haven't read anything set in Italy during this time period. It is a shame the writing let it down a bit for you though.

  2. It was definitely not bad and I'm interested in seeing what you think about it!