Monday, May 30, 2011

"The Daughter of Sienna" by Marina Fiorato

Siena, take a bow.

In Marina Fiorato's "The Daughter of Siena: A Novel,"
the principal characters turn out bit players, and the Tuscan city, a star.

Set in 18th century Italy, this is a tale of sanguinary political tribes, horseracing, love unrequited, and palace intrigue with a Sienese flavor.

The novel charts the slow-forming alliance of the low-born Riccardo Bruni, a maiden groomed for sale via marriage, Pia Tolomei, an ineffective duchess, and a street urchin, in their battle against some treasonous nobles bent on sacking Siena for their own enrichment.

"The Daughter of Siena" is as hermetically sealed as any self-respecting provincial European municipality.

The author effectively weaves Siena's ever-present swallows, rival "contrade" or neighborhoods' vibrant colors, and legendary "Palio" race -- the city's landmarks and identifying symbols -- into the stuff of the story.

The dome, towers, scalloped central square, urban landscape, pageantry and peculiar ways of the provincial burg not only inform the story, but are the very stuff it is made of.

The novel's tightly wound plot makes it difficult to do a summary without giving things away.

Perhaps it is enough to say that the cast are introduced, en masse, in the first Palio of summer, and the city's fate, which all will enlist to influence, is tied to the outcome of a second run in August.

"It is a little risky," says Pia. "To bet a city on a horse race."

Arrayed against the motley, but loveable, crew recruited to save the rein of the de Medici clan in town are some sinister city fathers with bloody predilections and a difficult-to-crack plan for seizing power from the Duchess Violante de Medici, of whom the omniscient narrator comments:

"She was aware of the new thinking, the new sciences, the enlightenment of the world, but she devoured instead legends and tales of old, because she herself was preserved in the amber of a bygone era."

As are the literary passions of Ms. Fiorato.

When Riccardo apprises Pia of so much that has occurred during her imprisonment at the hands of evil-doers, she observes, "He might have been telling her fairy tale by the fire, so incredible did it sound to her ears."

A fairy tale for adults, wherein the history and culture of a unique location are skillfully strung in narrative threads the writer successfully resolves, without the facts about Siena and its history ever appearing inorganic or forced.

The narration is rendered in a straight-up grammatical English and the whole is well-polished.

Subjectively speaking, highwayscribery prefers things a little raggedy, whereas this story stays between the lines, ties up all loose ends through sensible set-ups that can, at times, appear obvious. The resolutions comes across as neat and pat.

But that is mostly a matter of taste, not the skill so amply on display in this story of characters trying to cope with the weight of Siena, and it's history, on their efforts to hack individual paths through Italian life.

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