TITLE: Leonardo's Swans
AUTHOR: Karen Essex
STARTED: May 9, 2007
FINISHED: May 14, 2007
FIRST SENTENCE: Isabella spreads her arms like angels' wings over her sister's cold marble form, running her fingers down the exquisitely carved folds of her burial gown and tracing the delicate veins in her hands.
SUMMARY: [From barnesandnoble.com] Sexual and political intrigue drive Essex's intricate novel starring 15th-century Italian sisters Isabella and Beatrice d'Este. Isabella, the elder, more accomplished sister, is engaged to handsome Francesco Gonzaga, a minor aristocrat, while Beatrice is intended for the future duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, who's powerful, unscrupulous and already in possession of a pregnant mistress. It seems, at first, that Isabella will enjoy domesticity with Francesco, while unhappy Beatrice is useful to her husband only as a vehicle for breeding sons-a situation further complicated by Ludovico's infatuation with the more beautiful Isabella. While Isabella encourages her brother-in-law's overtures, she's actually desperate to sit for his resident artist, Leonardo da Vinci.
The sisters' sexual rivalry provides the main fodder for the novel's first half; the less compelling remainder is taken up with the political complexities of Renaissance Italy, as the rulers of France scheme to invade Italy, Francesco schemes against Ludovico, and Ludovico schemes against everyone.
REASON FOR READING: It was on my TBR list and I came across it at the library.
THOUGHTS: The first thing that struck me while reading this book was "I hate it." I really did. For some reason, the tense the author was writing in (third person present) was just plain annoying. It did not "Read" in a smooth and enjoyable manner. Then, the prologue (which was a scene from the future) ended and the tense changed. I thought, "Woohoo!" that was just a one time thing. Nope, I was wrong. Essex changes tenses all. the. time. She uses third person past for flashbacks and third person present for current time. While it makes sense, logically, it's jarring to read and actually made enjoying the book a difficult task. I spent so much time fighting with the grammatically structure that it was hard to follow the story. While the writing, with respect to word choice and description, was quite magical, I had trouble getting past the structure (both in style and plot) of the book.
Essex falls victim to the the problem of too many plots for too few pages. Each of the story lines - sister v. sister, families v. states, sister v. husband and lovers, sisters v. artists (mainly Leonard) - is interesting, but none of them receive the attention they deserve. Each of the plots is strung loosely together with no deeper connection or impact on one another. This novel never dives into the deeper issues that are simmering on the surface. I wish that Essex had picked one plot to dominate the novel instead of giving each equal amounts of superficial attention.
Also, because the writing style is the way it is and Essex never develops a sense of depth, the characters never feel like they are in the story. The characters seem to be passive players who have events happen to and around them, instead of coming across as key actors who themselves cause change. Due to that, the book feels flat. There's no action or passion, even though the setting of warring Italian city-states in the Renaissance is inherently dramatic.
The writing, in an off itself, is quite descriptive and vivid. Physical scenes do come alive on the page, but they are the most active part of the book. Essex makes fantastic word selection, but the prose and the plot never come together to create a whole novel.
MISCELLANEOUS: It was so awkward reading this book on the metro. I have no problem reading romance novels with their "Clutch" covers, but this one bugged me... probably because it was a large hardcover.
RATING: 5/10 [Meh.]