The Girl Who Knew da Vinci by Belle Ami

Angela is an American art historian with a concentration in the Italian Renaissance. That makes her perfect for her internship at the Getty museum, where she’s working (and being sexually harassed) when she meets Alex, an international art detective. He’s investigating a lost painting believed to have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Alex and Angela find they have an immediate connection fueled by centuries of their reincarnations finding each other and suffering tragically for it. Together they set out on a fast-paced mission to find the missing painting before the sleazy, scheming curator of the Getty can get his hands on it.
I liked the idea of the novel. European history is fascinating, and the truth is there’s a lot of information from that time that has been lost. There’s a lot of reasons for that, but the most interesting is the practice of destroying documentation from that time period. Some powerful people from that time period were really invested in keeping certain events quiet. I also liked this book because it was a well-timed read for me. I just arrived back home from my own study abroad experience in Florence studying art history, which is where a large part of the novel takes place.
The layering of the different timelines was done really well. This book was really three stories told in one, but it would have been overwhelming to go through them all at the same time, and it would have been boring to only go through one at a time. The choice to provide relevant flashbacks when they’re useful was good for pacing and for allowing the reader to really absorb the story.
The dialogue is choppy and awkward. It works for how we assume people of the Renaissance era talk, but it works less well for the storyline that takes place in WWII, and even less for the conversations that take place in the modern time period. The author also needs to work on her strategies for making significant reveals. This book is supposed to suspenseful, but any major moments lacked the necessary subtlety or tact to give it the gravity it deserved.
The relationship Angela and Alex share is enjoyable, I might even call it steamy. But I don’t like how Alex views Angela, or, more specifically, how Alex’s view of Angela is portrayed as virtuous or chivalrous in some way. There’s a point where he’s going on about how she’s hard to resist, even though she’s in a vulnerable position. That doesn’t make him better than a decent person, but the author attempted to attribute a lot of gravity to the situation. That made me uncomfortable.
It’s eventually revealed that Alex and Angela are reincarnations of several couples throughout history. I loved that because I like the idea of reincarnation and “one true love” and all that nonsense. I get it, it’s cheesy. However, when it’s written well, it’s swoon-worthy. Alex and Angela’s relationship lacked the nuance and subtlety necessary for it to feel like a well-fleshed romance story.
I eventually giveĀ The Girl Who Knew da Vinci 2 out of 5 stars. There were some things I liked a lot, but my biggest complaints were with the writer’s technique. This book amounted to a lot of unfulfilled promise for me. I do recommend this book to people who are interested in European history (for example, if you enjoyed the storyline for The Da Vinci Code, Reign, The Crown, etc.), but would dissuade anyone for whom writing style can be a deal breaker.
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The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Quentin Coldwater thinks there should be more to life than the daily grind. More than growing up, going to school, going to college, getting a corporate job and then dying. Maybe something more like Fillory from hisfavorite children’s novel Fillory and Further. Turns out Quentin is right. On the day of his interview for Yale, weird things keep happening until he finds himself transported to a strange house with a strange exam that he manages to pass and is accepted to a strange magic school. His journey toward becoming a Magician is long and more difficult than he expected, but Quentin finally feels like he’s where he belongs, like his life has a purpose.

It’s worth mentioning that I specifically sought this book out because it’s a current television show on the Syfy network that I happen to really enjoy. There are some changes between the media, but overall the adaptation is pretty true to form. I am a little sad that I watched the show before I read the book because there are some reall blow-your-mind moments that I knew were coming because I’ve already experienced them. I would have liked to have the full impact when I read them for the first time, so if you’re considering watching the show/reading the books, just think about that.

I’m sure Grossman’s gotten this mroe times than he can count, but The Magicians is basically the adult crossover of Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia. It lacks the iconography, historical references and morality lessons from either of the stories, but that contributes to the atmosphere of the novel. It’s very much intended to be an imagining of what would happen if these whimsical stories of childhood wizardry took place in the real world, where there isn’t always a lesson and there are consequences for the choices you make or don’t make.

Mental illness and addiction are undercurrents of the novel. Quentin, for example, the main character, suffers from chronic depression. It shapes his worldview and taints it. It’s why he’s always looking for more, why he’s always so whiny when things don’t go the way he hoped they would, and why he’s so good at self-sabotage. He’s not an incredibly likable character, and he’s not meant to be. This also contributes to the complexity of the story and speaks to the intended audience of the novel. The Eliot of the television show says something about where he thinks magic comes from: pain and suffering. There a reason that not everyone can do magic. They simply don’t have the misery to draw from. That’s probably why they all feel the need to numb everything with alcohol or drugs or whatever they can find really.

The pacing is a tad confusing. They get through the entirety of their time at Brakebills in Book One, but the novel still has three acts left. We don’t really have the time necessary to grow with the characters. Suddenly they’re in college, suddenly they’ve graduated. Next we spend a lot of time doing nothing in the real world until Penny shows up to take us on an adventure. One of the brightest spots of this novel when compared with other novels about magic is it’s inclusion of magical theory. That could have been used more effectively to expand upon the growth of the magicians.

I’m really excited to read the sequel and subsequent novels of the series. Thankfully, I am at a point in my binge-watching of the television series that will allow me to enjoy the novel version the first time through. I give this book a hopeful 4 out of 5 stars for characterization and world-building. Those who grew up on fantasy novels and are looking for a more adult take on their genre will enjoy this.