In 16th-century Italy, two women rejected by their families weave in and out of each other’s lives in this novel about the desire for beauty and acceptance. One is an ostentatious, glamorous widowed courtesan, and the other is shunned for the bird-shaped blemish on her face. Marked as she is, Flavia cannot go out in public – until the discovery of white cerussa, a lead-poisoned cosmetic. If only her mother hadn’t seen the broken nest while pregnant; then her face would never have been marked with the bird in flight.
Strong lyrical imagery (“she has a list of truisms longer than a hermit’s toenails”) provides weight to the historical setting, which I very much enjoyed. This writing style works immeasurably well to express changes in moods or thoughts and character observations: “Her stepmother’s questions were like a great hand reaching into her head, pushing things around that ought not to be moved, and squeezing what was known and normal into a small forgotten place.”
However, the prose is not effective for conveying actions. Some sections needed a re-read in order to visualize the physical movements: “A loud cracking noise fills her head. She blinks very hard because no one told her there was going to be a storm today. Twice more, the smack of something hard on her ear.” If you’re being struck with the edge of a silver card case, as is happening here, you’ll know it’s not thunder. When characters feel pain or fear, the thoughts need to be more urgent in nature.
The beauty recipes included by Howard illustrate the ridiculous lengths women have gone through for beauty. This is a moving, sometimes frightening, and always surprising story. Utilizing strong historical settings and enchanting language, the light and dark pigments coalesce into a story beautiful on multiple levels.