Sunday, January 18, 2009

How I learned to like historical fiction

I'm not a big fan of historical fiction because it seems like it's mostly about war. That's a broad, over-simplified generalization, but that's what comes to mind when I think of historical fiction. Seems like it's always about World War I or II and I can't seem to muster up the energy to want to read anything from that time period. I'd rather grab a book that is pure fiction and toss reality to the wayside. One day I forced myself to read my library newsletter that was about historical fiction novels, and noticed that they were highlighting books based on lives of women who influenced or were involved in the lives of artists. Well, that was something I could get excited about! The people and locations I do love throughout history usually have to do with the arts: musical, visual and written. I picked three books for each aspect of the arts and here are the winners.

If you were like me, you had to read The Great Gatsby in high school. If you're also like me, you remember hardly anything about it except the guy named Gatsby and the gal named Daisy. Well, it ends up that F. Scott Fitzgerald's inspiration for the lovely Daisy was his real-life first love, Ginevra King. (Sidenote: Anybody else know of a Ginevra in modern literature?) Caroline Preston took the bare bones facts of Ginevra King's life and turned it into a page-turner of a book called Gatsby's Girl. It follows Ginevra Perry through her meeting of Fitzgerald, their brief but steamy relationship through letters, her gradual disinterest of him and the oh so many bad choices that followed. It's told from Ginevra's point of view as an old woman looking back at her mistakes and she is so much more cognizant of how big of a flirt she was and how many life-altering decisions she made based on someone being good-looking. It kept me riveted and though I grew frustrated at how unhappy she became as time went by--due to her big stupidhead choices--I kept hoping for her to be happy. Eventually, Ginevra and Fitzgerald cross paths again and she is able to finally close that chapter of her life and move on to a happier future.

This book was an enormous departure from the real story of Ginevra King, but from what I read about King's life, Ginevra Perry was a much more compassionate and interesting person, even if she's fictional. The facts about Fitzgerald remain true to history, which is sad since he screwed up his life big time. As I read the book, I remembered more details about The Great Gatsby and was reminded of how much I liked the book and the era it was written in. In our past, but not so distant, with characters that are flawed, but lovable, Gatsby's Girl was a great read. It was a wonderful way to peak my interest in historical fiction.

You know who I love? Mozart. I love Beethoven more, but the book I read was based on the Weber women who deeply affected Mozart's music and who he loved at various stages of his life, eventually marrying Constanza. I'll look for a book about Beethoven later. Ever seen the movie Amadeus? It depicts Mozart as a wine-swilling womanizing hysterically-laughing scamp who can't get his act together. I always hated that image of him and was so happy to read Stephanie Cowell's version of him in Marrying Mozart because she has such a kinder view. Maybe it's because it is from the standpoint of how the Weber women were such an integral part of his life that makes the reader see his gentlemanly demeanor and his passion. Cowell took what information we have of Constanza Weber and built a beautiful story around her life and that of her sisters. It was a fascinating read from a musical standpoint and from a historical one. Cowell is a trained coloratura soprano, which is the highest vocal range achievable, so her understanding of music made her written descriptions absolutely heavenly. My many years of musical training coupled with her descriptions practically made my brain hum with Mozart's music and I couldn't shake the need to listen to his operas for days afterward. This book was a captivating journey into that time period, the women's lives of that century, and into the musical soul of Mozart and his lasting brilliance.

My final book of this historical group was one based on the mysterious woman in Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Not much is known about the woman in the famous painting because it was never titled or dated, but what Donna Jo Napoli did in The Smile with the facts available was wonderful. It's a young adult novel, so it wasn't long or fraught with big words, but Napoli didn't skimp on the rich history of Florence, Italy during the Renaissance. I remember so little from my cultural history classes in college that Napoli could have written about aliens landing and knocking the tower in Pisa to form its famous tilt and I probably wouldn't even catch it. I appreciated her notes at the end describing what information she gathered and how she used it. What a fascinating time period! Florence was such a center of culture and art! It's now on my list of places I must see. Her 15th century Italian countryside was so deliciously descriptive with the gardens and the food and the clothes that I was desperate for a time machine so I could experience even a few moments of it. After reading this book, I no longer wonder why people are crazy about Renaissance fairs.

I know all of these books are just the author's interpretation and imagination on what happened to real people and events, but I feel smarter after reading them. It felt like I stepped backward in time and experienced what it was like for these women during their lives. Now I see what all the fuss is about with historical fiction. I might have to dive into another trio of books sometime and do some more globe-trotting and time-traveling. You should try it too.


  1. They all sound great! Thanks for the post!

  2. I'll have to give them a try. I haven't had much success with historical fiction yet, but these sound good.

  3. If you are still in the Fitzgerald mood, I just finished a book of his short stories: Everything he wrote "Before Gatsby" (that's the title). I, like you, remember very little of Gatsby but I really enjoyed the short stories.
    I'm going to find "The Smile". I read "The Agony and the Ecstacy" a few years ago and it had similar delicious descriptions of Florence. I have added it to my Must-Visit-Before-I-Die list.

  4. What a fun trio of books. No wonder you hadn't posted in a while... you've been busy reading ;) I always love reading your reviews. Thank you!

  5. These sound like fascinating reads. I read a historical novel about Marie Antoinette when I was young and have been enchanted with her story ever since. You've reminded me of a whole genre that I've neglected for years! And speaking of Beethoven, did you ever see "Immortal Beloved" during the Varsity days? Loved it! Much more so than "Amadeus"! But I'll take Beethoven over Mozart any day anyway...

  6. Hmm, looks like I need to try out Fitzgerald's short stories. I remember really liking The Great Gatsby. If I read another book about Florence, though, I'm going to have to buy some plane tickets.

    Amen on the Beethoven preference. He is fascinating, his music is fascinating, etc. Ever seen Copying Beethoven? It was interesting, but I'm not sure if I liked it or not. I missed Immortal Beloved way back when.