Eleonora and Joseph

Written by Julieta Almeida Rodrigues
Review by Vicki Kondelik

Rodrigues tells the story of Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel and Joseph Correia da Serra, two remarkable people from late 18th-century Naples. Eleonora is the daughter of Portuguese aristocrats who give her a classical education on a level with the boys of her social class. While studying Latin, she meets Joseph, the son of a Portuguese Jewish family forcibly converted to Catholicism. The two share a love of learning, and eventually they fall in love. Joseph’s father lacks money and wants him to become a priest, which would guarantee an income. Joseph obeys his father’s wishes and breaks Eleonora’s heart.

Steeped in Enlightenment philosophy, Eleonora becomes a poet and intellectual and accepts a position as librarian to Queen Carolina of Naples. When Eleonora discovers a secret about the queen’s personal life, Carolina dismisses her. Eventually Eleonora becomes a supporter of the French Revolution. In 1799, during the short-lived Neapolitan Republic, she edits a revolutionary newspaper, only to be imprisoned for her activities after the Republic’s fall. Meanwhile, Joseph becomes a diplomat and botanist, and a friend of Thomas Jefferson, frequently visiting him at Monticello, where the two discuss the events of the day. It is during one of these visits that Joseph discovers Eleonora’s memoir, written in prison, which brings back a flood of memories and makes him regret the past.

Rodrigues’ writing is beautiful, and she brings these two historical characters to life. The novel is told in alternating chapters, interspersing the conversations between Joseph and Jefferson at Monticello with Eleonora’s memoir, which Joseph is reading. The scenes at Monticello are fascinating, with Joseph and Jefferson discussing a wide range of topics, including slavery, revolution, and science. Rodrigues makes the reader sympathize with both protagonists, and the book left me wanting to read more, especially about Eleonora.