I thought I was going to need some time to recover from the exquisite The Everlasting, but really it flung me head-first into a literal rabbit-hole. A warren. An abbey. A nunnery, if you will. Also- The Atlantic just posted a list of books that were done dirty by pandemic releases, and OF COURE The Everlasting resides within those vaulted halls.
I was immediately drawn to Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici after she was mentioned several times in The Everlasting. A distant relative of her spots her likeness in the Papal Palace; she was painted by Botticelli. She was an armed warrior duchess. When faced with threats against her children, she (allegedly) hiked up her skirts and said: go ahead and kill my kids, I have everything I need to make more right here. Obviously, I had to know more.
Don’t let the “three” sway you; it’s a heavily swayed average. Matrix is easily an all-time favorite. Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love is a bizarre and poorly planned vanity project!
Matrix – Lauren Groff 5/5
This is another “do not google” read! Loosely based on Marie of France, Matrix is a transcendent meditation on womanhood, love, responsibility, and power set in an Abbey somewhere in the foggy glades of England in the 12th century. A young woman, Marie, is essentially sold to a sinking and pitiful Abbey by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Marie is too tall, bold, smart and odd for a life at court, despite her royal blood and connections. She has no love of god or religion, but she has a fiery love for her sisters. Matrix unfolds over decades of triumph, tragedy, and power. Like all Groff pieces, this one will leave you equally aching and incensed. Matrix is a stunning work of fiction, and I hope that one day we learn that more of it is mired in true history than we could have ever imagined.
Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography – James Burge 3/5
After finishing Matrix in a delightful but utterly tormenting fog of emotions, I had to grab at anything in my house that could hold onto any of the power of Marie of France. Heloise & Abelard was sitting on my shelf for at least a decade; I do not remember where I originally picked it up, but it must have belonged to someone before me because the margins were full of inked-in notes. The first story in Groff’s incredible collection of short stories, Delicate and Edible Birds is a retelling of the story of Heloise and Abelard, real thinkers, writers, lovers, and cloistered individuals of the 12th century. Heloise, a brilliant student was tutored by Abelard, a brilliant (and insufferable) philosopher in the home of her uncle. Incredible acts of love and lust ensued, and the star-crossed lovers were separated by family, the church, and well- DIY surgery-based revenge. Abelard was a blow-hard and incendiary sort, and Heloise a brilliant but utterly besotted woman in a time when those feelings were not allowed, but we know their story because the two did a lot of writing. Letters between the two have survived the ages because they- especially in the hand of Heloise- are crammed to the margins with carnal desire, utter betrayal, and the poetry of love. Unfortunately, there is always more information about Abelard than that of his Heloise. Burge makes a valiant effort to draw us into the passion and strength of Heloise, but due to the historical record (mostly because Abelard was king of the “woe is me” autobiography, we still have to spend too much time seeing brilliant Heloise through the inner-facing eyes of Abelard.
The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de Medici – Elizabeth Lev 4/5
Caterina was, by all accounts, a true bad ass. She captured castles. She survived multiple assassination attempts. She battled with popes and countries. She endured nasty husbands and kept more than one secret spouse. She could read, write, ride, fight, and hunt. She was the apple of one pope’s eye and the prisoner of another. She was painted into murals by Botticelli and, allegedly, Da Vinci himself. She fought for her people and her country while heavily pregnant on more than one occasion. She threaded her golden needle through familial, religious, martial, and courtly battles. She was beloved by many and hated by many- and I had not heard of her until she was name-dropped by a distant relative in The Everlasting! Do yourself a favor and dive into this history- it is entertaining, enlightening, and infuriating- everything you need from a good biography! Bonus points: Imola is mentioned here more times than it is mentioned in the Formula One community!
Letters of a Portuguese Nun: Uncovering the Mystery Behind a 17th Century Forbidden Love 2/5
Ugh, we finish with a bit of a let-down. The last in the random books of nunnery stashed throughout my house, this odd little vanity project is cursed on several levels. First of all, it is one of the few publications from Weinstein’s Miramax Books imprint. Yuck. Secondly, it does not need to exist! There is nothing new, well researched, or well-thought out in the slim volume. The author, Miriam Cyr, even admits in the intro that she had no idea that these letters existed before stumbling into a play (one of many that have existed for decades) and deciding that she “had” to translate them herself (despite her lack of linguistic knowledge and the prevalence of many other translations). The editing is also non-existent. There are countless misspellings, names swap with abandon, places are described as being miles from where they actually are, and the entire thing is literally printed onto the page at a drastic angle! Skip this and read Matrix twice.