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The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park

Review by Janalei

Grazia is a Jewish woman in Renaissance Italy. This book is narrated by her, in the form of a personal story of her life, written for her son Danilo so that he "may know whence [he comes] and take benefit from the experience of those on whose shoulders [he stands], as [his] own sons will someday stand upon the foundations [he has] laid." It starts in 1487 when Grazia is 8 years old. Until then her childhood has been happy and uneventful, but on this Passover eve she discovers for the first time how easily and abruptly even the wealthiest of Jews can get displaced in a Christian world. Her book follows her life as she grows up into a woman with a family and a life of her own. She is a scholar, learned in many languages, and eventually she becomes secretary to the lady Isabella d'Este, an actual historical figure. Grazia falls in love early, with a Christian prince, but such a love is forbidden, and it is a little depressing to read about her brief happiness when you know from page one that she does not marry him but the ewish doctor Judah del Medigo. She runs into her first love at various times throughout the book after her marriage, and one of the major themes is the decision Grazia must make between faith, duty and family, and the chance for love and perhaps happiness.

Aside from Grazia's own story, much is happening in the Renaissance world at this time. As she writes the story of her life, events are leading up to a foreign invasion of Rome, and although I am not too familiar with this period of history, it seems to be fantastically well researched, and it was very interesting to watch these events unfold through Grazia's eyes.

The author built this story around two letters from this period in Renaissance Italy, hinting at a forbidden love between a Jewess and a Christian noble. One of these letters was written by Isabella d'Este urging the woman to convert to Christianity so that she could marry the man, and this letter appears, with some changes, in the text of Grazia's libro segreto. When I read the actual letter and the author's story of finding them at the end of the book, it made the whole story seem even more real to me, even though beyond the letters Grazia's story came entirely from the author's imagination.

I started this book rather expecting it to be a slow read, but I sped through it, intent on discovering what would happen next to Grazia and her family. At many times it was depressing, as it chronicled many events of the continued displacement of Grazia's family and the Jews of Italy in general, as well as the downfall of many of Grazia's family members. There was a sense of helplessness about it at times, but also of hope, as Grazia managed to come through all of her hardships with grace, even if her loved ones did not always manage the same. One complaint is that the ending seemed rather abrupt to me, although perhaps I should have seen it coming. On the whole I thoroughly enjoyed this book: the characters were believable, and enjoyable to read about even if not always likeable, and the world seemed accurate to my relatively uninformed mind, and fascinating to read about in any event. I give it 4 out of 5 amulets, just because anything above that is reserved for things that I absolutely love. *g*


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