Giulia, the heroine of this young adult novel about the Renaissance, is the bastard daughter of a nobleman whose death allows his jealous wife to hustle the girl off to the Santa Marta convent in Padua. But Giulia longs for a better life, a home of her own, and a true love, and she seeks out her father’s astrologer to help her. He gives her an amulet, with the promise that she will get what she desires.
In the convent, she discovers two conflicting ways forward: work as a painter among Santa Marta’s astonishing group of artistic nuns – or a young man. How she chooses between them drives this novel.
The task of a writer taking on such familiar stuff is to vitalize it, find some surprises, build deep characters. Strauss fails at this. The men are bad and wrong, the women are spunky and right, you know by page 10 what’s going to happen on page 300, and the amulet hardly matters, being the only magical element in the whole story. YA has to be better than this: grown-ups will sometimes go for something that simply reassures them in their values, but younger readers want more edge.