Flavia knows she is ugly. It is the one constant in her life and, because of it, her mother resents her, her father pities her, and her younger sister Pia steals all the glory, savouring the betrothal and marriage night that Flavia herself will never have. With a purple birthmark in the shape of a bird soaring across her cheek, Flavia is irrevocably marked. And yet, when her vindictive behaviour leads her parents to wash their hands of her at last, and confine her to a convent, Flavia discovers a remarkable truth: beauty can be assumed. Assigned to the elegant Ghostanza Dolfin, serving as her ornatrix or beautician, Flavia discovers that beauty can come out of a jar and that ugliness can be hidden beneath the glowing white mask of cerussa. Suddenly, life is full of possibility.
But Ghostanza stands guard over her beauty secrets. As Flavia is drawn deeper into the web of this woman, this calculating spider, we learn about Ghostanza’s past, where beauty has been her only currency. Now, as her pretty stepdaughter grows to maturity while she rots within a convent’s walls, Ghostanza seeks more than ever to preserve her looks. Flavia is sent out on errands to the town’s sleazy apothecary Il Sicofante, to buy creams and potions, pastes and unguents. And the apothecary complies with alacrity, even though payment is never forthcoming, for Ghostanza Dolfin is famous for her beauty and is said to know the secret of how to make Venetian cerussa, the whitest, brightest makeup that could make his fortune. And Flavia, realising that cerussa can transform her own face and fate, joins with him in an effort to uncover her temperamental, termagant mistress’s secrets. Through an unspoken game of cat and mouse the main characters circle one another, poke and test and try their luck, always driven by that siren song of eternal beauty.
Sometimes books that are set in the Renaissance pretty it all up far too much. But Howard takes the opposite tack. Her Italy is a mire, full of grotesques and ugliness: pools of piss and wastewater on the street; the stench of dyers’ workshops; the makeup on old women’s faces melting and sagging in the heat; the bald, cropped heads beneath heads of stolen hair; the rotting, suppurating flesh beneath the lead white of the cerussa. The message is quite clear and is hammered home with almost wearying insistence: beauty is within, not without. Even the truly beautiful – the young, the fresh-faced – are corrupted by spite or envy or even darker things. While I’m all for gritty historical fiction, I find it hard to warm to a book where all is duplicity, cynicism, miasma and distortion.
It’s always hard to decide what makes a good book, and I’m one of those who believes that characters don’t have to be nice. Give me a charismatic swine and I’ll be hooked. But I think I do have to be able to engage with them, and that was the hard thing here for me. Not a single one of the characters – with the possible exception of poor, unappreciated Maestro Vitale – was remotely sympathetic or empathetic. What had actually developed or changed by the end of the story? Obviously this is a spoiler, so skip on if you don’t want it, but it seemed to me that the only change is that Flavia has realised she can make a profitable trade from peddling lies and fantasies to people with more money than sense. Although she has a hell of a time, I just couldn’t warm to her, because whenever she has a measure of autonomy, she uses it to lie, cheat, or wallow in her own misery. And she doesn’t even do this in a way that might win her some grudging respect from the reader.
I appreciate the idea behind the novel, and Howard draws on quotations from Angolo Firenzuola’s 15th-century beauty manual, which are some of the most amusing parts of the novel – there are recipes to sweeten the breath, lighten freckles and even change the colour of a child’s eyes, which makes me suspect that they are more effective in the promise than the result. The problem for me was that I felt there was only one message, delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer in a forge. After a while the focus on bodily functions, personal spite, ugliness and inner misery simply wore me down and I found, despite my best intentions, that I simply didn’t really care any more.
But that’s only my opinion. I see that lots of people on Goodreads loved it, so don’t let me dissuade you if you find yourself burning to try it.