The description of this novel was irresistible for me — historical fiction that spans four very different time periods, linked by their location (Rome) and an object in common. It reminded me of Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which I read and loved a long time ago. This novel is extraordinarily clever and well written but for some reason, most likely related to my own mental state these days, I had a hard time getting into it and I’m pretty sure I haven’t fully gotten the overall point. I could use a good book group discussion of this to help me figure it out. It is a good novel and worth your time though. I’m not saying I disliked it, just that I feel like I missed something along the way.
Author Katy Simpson Smith reveals her characters’ stories in reverse order in two parts. Her main characters are two adult men facing lost love and their own mortality, as well as two young female characters yearning for more than life has to offer them. Tom (2015) is a 40-ish American biologist in Rome on a research grant. The focus of his work is ostracods, small seemingly insignificant organisms with a knack for survival. Tom has left his daughter and wife in the US and finds that his marriage is no longer tenable for him. He has taken on a lover in Rome and his research seems to be taking off when his health begins to fail him and a serious diagnosis forces him to re-evaluate. Felix (896-7) is an elderly brother (a religious designation in the Roman Catholic Church; he’s not a priest but is celibate and dedicated to the church) whose job is to oversee the “putridarium” beneath the church of St. Prisca. The putridarium is where the bodies of dead brothers are taken to decay under Felix’s watchful eye until they are ready to be interred. Felix sees his duties as a kind of privilege and treats the bodies of his dead brothers with love, friendship and respect (reader, you will learn some gross stuff about bodily decay here). But when the church’s relics go missing and a new young novitiate joins the monastery, Felix will be forced to remember the pains and losses of his youth.
Between Tom and Felix, Smith introduces Giulia De Medici (1559), a real historical figure from one of the most powerful families of the Renaissance. Giulia is a biracial beauty in her early 20s, and she is already on her second marriage. She has been unhappy in both and often dreams of becoming a fierce warrior-like leader. A complication has arisen, however, since Giulia finds herself pregnant by another man. One of the things I like about this character as Smith imagines her is that Giulia does not panic or grow fearful; she has options and she has a fire in her that she will not allow to go out. She knows and values her own power, but she also has a hard time allowing herself any vulnerability or admission of hurt at the hands of her illicit love.
The final character is someone believed to be an historical figure — the Christian martyr Prisca (167 AD). She is just a girl, about 12 years old, and experiencing her first crush and her period. Prisca, because she is a girl, she is often ignored or overlooked, but she herself is observant and intelligent. Rome is experiencing drought and while her mother wants to make sacrifices to the Roman gods, her father has fallen under the influence of Christianity, endangering the whole family. Prisca, like Giulia, has an inner fire and she desires to bring justice to those like her who are powerless. Because of her exposure to Christianity, she feels she has a model to follow, one that will require complete devotion and even perhaps self-sacrifice. When she is called to act on that faith, however, she reveals a wisdom and power of self-reflection that is extraordinary. The book ends with her story and it was done in a beautiful way.
Throughout all four stories, another narrator/commentator inserts himself — Satan. This Satan is like a jilted lover, and the lover that has left him is God. This is a Satan who feels wronged and seems to want reunion with God. He has a particular affinity for Giulia and Prisca, admiring their intelligence and passion. Overall, however, I wasn’t completely sure what the point of Satan’s interjections into the text was supposed to accomplish.
The object that links the four stories is worthy of its own discussion, but, in case you are interested in reading this novel, I will be very brief and cryptic about it! The question is whether it is some sort of holy relic or not, and I think one could argue either side of that question quite compellingly. It might be holy but not for the reasons the faithful would think.
As AndtheIToldYouSos said in her review, this is a novel that you need to sit with for a while after reading. Writing this review has helped me go back and re-think some of my initial opinions of it. It is thought provoking and spiritual in a way that doesn’t come across as proselytizing. It’s the kind of novel that probably improves on each re-reading.