The Marchesa by Simonetta Agnello Hornby
Constanza Safamita is the second child and only daughter of Baron Domenico Safamita, a noble in 19th-century Sicily. Scorned by her mother from the moment of her birth because of her bright red hair and because she was supposed to be a son, what love Constanza enjoys comes from her doting father and her older brother, Stefano. The Safamita servants quickly become aware of the daughter rejected by her mother, and soon gossip about the baby swirls around the town - she must be deformed; she must be a witch; she must be a bastard. Growing up the subject of the townspeople's speculation and curiosity, Constanza becomes quiet and withdrawn, preferring the company of her beloved nurse to the children of the nobility.
As his children grow, Domenico soon realizes that Constanza is the smartest, most capable of the three - her two brothers are strong-willed and selfish, unworthy to carry on the Safamita fortune. When Stefano falls in love with a woman below his station and marries her against his family's wishes, Domenico disinherits him and begins making plans to install Constanza as his primary heir. With his youngest son, Giacomo, becoming increasingly troublesome, Domenico presses Constanza to marry. He allows her to choose her own husband, unaware of her terror at the idea of marriage. When she falls impulsively in love with Pietro, the Marchese di Sabbiamena, Domenico regrets his decision to allow her the freedom to select on her own. Pietro is handsome and charming but a confirmed rake with immense gambling debts. Constanza refuses to choose another, and the two are married.
Constanza quickly realizes that the new husband she adores is not in love with her. She does earn his respect and friendship, and the two settle into a chaste marriage. When on his deathbed Domenico urges Costanza to discover what makes her truly happy, she is finally able to put her own needs first. When her husband comes to the realization that he loves her, Constanza must decide if she is willing to let him back into her life or if she will continue to live on her own terms, with the people and things that bring her true fulfillment.
The Marchesa is told in a series of flashbacks by Constanza's nurse, Amalia, as she cares for her niece in a small cave settlement. It covers a vast amount of material, introducing an almost endless array of characters. Hornby includes minute details of the lives of her characters, and this is where the novel bogs down. Instead of focusing on aspects of the plot which could be fascinating if fleshed out - the situation of Amalia and her niece, the incestuous relationship between Constanza's parents, the truth about Constanza's father - Hornby chooses to spend pages describing every tiny detail of the lives of the nobles and servants, down to how they washed the linen and the taste of the holy wafers at the convent. Each time the reader gets fully engrossed in the narrative, it breaks for a description of a conversation between two nearly unknown characters.
Hornby also seems to be relating her story at a distance, never allowing the reader to feel like they know any of the characters. Almost like she is reciting history, she gives a list of events but does not allow the reader to feel the emotions of any of her characters. While the setting and situations of her novel are interesting, her lack of connection to the protagonists leaves the reader feeling empty. The Marchesa is a novel with a great deal of promise that sadly does not deliver. Historical fiction fans will be disappointed by the plodding narrative and distant characters. It is an interesting glimpse at a specific period in history, but not an engaging novel.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Elizabeth Schulenberg, 2009