The Fiery Alphabet
We first meet Daniela Meso in 1764 as a 17-year-old prodigy, proficient in mathematics and fluent in Greek and Hebrew, among other languages. She lives in her father’s house in Rome, where she comes under the spell of a mystic charlatan calling himself Giuseppe Balsamo, a historical character also known as the Count di Castiglioro. After he persuades her that giving him her body will enable him to save her father’s life, they embark on a journey through Italy as traveling confidence tricksters and money changers. Balsamo suggests that Daniela may be descended from Jews. She has an affair with a Venetian man who seems to be Casanova. Later she becomes the supervisor of an orphanage before undertaking a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she becomes a debunker of false relics. In Constantinople she visits the sultan’s harem and eventually becomes a wealthy eccentric who runs a refuge for former prostitutes.
The novel suffers from overwriting, especially in describing sex: “I kissed his eyelids and the palms of his hands and the wedge of that part that only gods and heroes display. He said ‘oh my love’ and ‘oh my love’ I said and the word was made flesh in our mouths and our hands.” Those whom the quoted passage does not repel might enjoy this novel; I didn’t. Not recommended.