Book Review: The Smile

Can I say enough nice things about Donna Jo Napoli? I think not. I may have mentioned that when I find an author I like, I tend to go on a bit of  a binge. So our latest Donna Jo Napoli novel is The Smile, a historical novel whose main character is the woman famously painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

I think this one is shelved in the teen section and officially a “young adult” novel. The main character is in her teens and thus dealing with the standard fare of that age — getting betrothed, falling in love, etc. This topic is treated well and there is a lot of food for thought in there about the relative importance of love, economics, and status in our notions of a “good” marriage. It treats the idea of different kinds of love sensitively as well.

I am relatively unfamiliar with this particular historical period in Florence. The novel is set in the late 15th century, before and after the fall of the Medici regime there. The history seems to be very well integrated and told from the perspective of a noble girl who is slightly outside of the city politics. Her father is a silk merchant and they live in the countryside. Also important to her perspective (and I don’t think this gives to much away) is that she falls in love with a younger Medici.

Most of the novel is firmly located in noble society but class differences are addressed in the relationship between Elizabetta (Monna Lisa) and her friend Silvia, the daughter of one of the peasants who works for her father. The impossibility of transcending these boundaries is well illustrated while at the same time the possibility of friendly relations between women (at least) of different classes is shown.

This novel really got me interested in learning more about this period in Italian (though at that time one should really say Florentine) history. It is this period that Macchiavelli writes about in The Prince and we thought that maybe that could be a read-together book sometime soon.

This isn’t really a book about a painting. It takes the painting as a point of departure and creates a plausible story, drawing on solid historical knowledge. The main character is fictional. Not much is known about the woman who modelled for DaVinci. But the events and places are real. It is this combination of a good story about a girl growing up, falling in love, marrying and having children with interesting historical detail that makes The Smile so compelling.

You learn a little bit about silk production on the side. And I wondered at some points, whether one could recreate certain dishes. There is considerable detail about food in places. And this is Italy before the “discovery” of the New World and thus before the tomato. I have trouble imagining Italian food without tomatoes and the food intrigued me.

As you can tell, I enjoyed this book as much as Tigger did. It makes a good read-together. I suspect that the primary narrative would not be of interest to younger girls. Tigger is just coming into the age where this kind of thing is of interest, though the history is also fascinating.

Highly recommended, as seems to be the case with any book I take the time to write a review of.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Smile

  1. You always have the best book recommendations! We studied this period in depth last year, but Honey is doing it again in Art history this year. Sounds like a fun read to add depth to her studies!


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