It's the fifteenth century, and seventeen year old Guilia is the illegitimate daughter of a count and his mistress, a seamstress in his household. She's reviled by the count's wife, so when the count dies, his widow decides to finally send Guilia away - to a convent to become a nun.
This is the last thing Guilia wants, since she regards the convent as a prison, but there's nothing she can do to stop from going. She has no money of her own and no other family to take her in. Before she goes, she pays a visit to an astrologer/sorcerer and hires him to make her an amulet, trapping a "spirit" inside of it that is supposed to eventually grant her her heart's desire. In Guilia's mind, a husband will free her of the convent, give her a home of her own, and allow her to live a life of her own choosing.
At the convent, the nuns discover that Guilia has a talent for art, and she's taken in to learn how to paint by a master painter, Maestra Humilita. The Maestra runs an entire painting workshop of just women in the convent, something that would be impossible outside its walls. The workshop is so well-regarded that private citizens as well as churches have commissioned paintings from them.
But Guilia still has marriage and escape from the convent on her mind, and she believes the spirit has granted her heart's desire when she meets Ormanno, a young man who has been hired to repair a fresco in the convent. As she grows closer to Ormanno, she also grows closer to Humilita, and she learns that no matter what decision she makes, it will entail great sacrifice. (Indeed, women's roles in this time period were so incredibly limited that anything less than great sacrifice for someone who wanted any measure of independence would have rung false.)
If you were to judge Passion Blue by its author blurbs, you'd think it was historical fantasy, but you'd be mostly wrong. Granted, there's talk of a sorcerer and astrology and spirits, but it's all within the context of Guilia's belief set rather than what actually happens. For those sharp readers, there's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it incident near the end of the novel that one could argue is proof of some sort of magic, but really, this novel isn't going to appeal to those in search of their latest fantasy fix. It's solidly for historical fiction fans.
Which is a good thing. The historical details are rich and very satisfying. I loved reading about the Renaissance techniques of creating color, of the labor that goes into preparing all of the equipment before the painter could even begin painting. I especially enjoyed reading about how intricate the color recipes were, and that they were so valuable they were written in code and kept in secret books that no one but the creator could read.
I also enjoyed reading about a way a woman in Renaissance Italy could make a life for herself that didn't involve marriage and babies. The society of the convent is particularly interesting - the women all came to be nuns for a variety of reasons, and many of those reasons had nothing to do with religion. In some ways, the convent was a way for a group of women to function mostly independently, despite the many strict rules they had to follow.
Guilia is, perhaps, not the most perceptive of protagonists. She's quite naive and is incapable of reading others accurately, which drives much of the conflict of the novel. She learns, though, and eventually comes to realize what readers had picked up on long before she had: her heart's desire is not what she thought at all. It takes a huge mistake for her to come to this realization, but in the end, we're left with a young woman who has carved out her own niche in the world.
The writing is lovely. Guilia herself seems quite young (in terms of maturity), but the writing is not juvenile. Strauss keeps the story moving at a nice clip and does a fine job interweaving Guilia's relentless search for her heart's desire with the historical backdrop. In less capable hands, the story may have seemed a bit slow or quiet, but I was never bored.
This is a great pick for historical fiction fans, particularly those interested in the Renaissance, women's roles, or art. It's also a nice change from historical fiction that re-imagines a well-known historical figure's life. Those stories are certainly fun to read, but it can take a bit of the mystery out of the tale, since the end is a foregone conclusion.
Review copy received from the publisher/author. Passion Blue is available now.