Book Review: In Lucia’s Eyes

In Lucia's EyesThis hardcover caught my eye in a bargain bin a few years back; I enjoy foreign literature, and this had been translated from original Dutch version written by Arthur Japin. It is billed as historical fiction, pieced together on thin fact surrounding the legendary Giacomo Casanova.

According to the cover flap text:

She is a servant girl in an Italian manor house, educated by her lascivious lord, engaged to a young man by the name of Giacomo–and suddenly disfigured by the pox. Fleeing in shame and without warning, piercing the heart of her beloved, Lucia faces a bewildering new world alone. She will move across Europe for sixteen years–from Naples to Venice, Paris, and Amsterdam–working as a housekeeper, a lady’s companion, and finally, as a much-sought-after courtesan. In salons, opera boxes, and boudoirs, her curiosity and intelligence are nurtured by the revolutionary new ideas of the Enlightenment, passionately debated in spheres of society she has never known before. But not until her accidental reunion with Giacomo Casanova–now the tragic figure of infamous legend–will the lessons of her astonishing journey be revealed to her, and with them, her truest self.

The book is written in a very contemplative tone and definitely reflects the veiled perspective Lucia takes on later in her life. However, the distance the reader feels from the characters Lucia describes and interacts with allows for quite a few philosophical discussions, despite her being born into the servant class:

“Shame is one of the basest of urges,” said Zélide. “I place it at the bottom of the ladder of civilized feeling, between revenge and jealousy. It’s a destructive force, fed by fear.” I heard her close by but could not see her. “We carry this pernicious impulse within us as one of nature’s burdens, but we must fight against it. We must!”

With that she appeared, her face suddenly close to mine.

“Why fear what is?” she whispered. I looked her in the eyes. To judge from my discomfort, I don’t believe we had ever been so close.

It’s a fascinating account of a life made extraordinary by the intelligence hidden behind both simple beginnings and a grotesquely disfigured face. Its slow pace combines with its short length to leave you in a somewhat dreamy state, wondering what impact you might wittingly or not have had on the people around you.

It’s also not a book everyone will enjoy. Its antecedents are definitely in some of the Romantic tendencies of Europe in the 1800s as those countries fought to move into the Enlightenment. Lucia’s training itself addresses the tension between the unschooled, artless flourish of emotion and the cold logic of philosophical exploration. That theme carries through the whole book and could turn off anyone not drawn to those debates. But for those who are, the lush setting, ranging from Italy through most of Europe from a female’s perspective, contributes as much as the philosophizing to a lasting and worthwhile impression of the work–and a visceral understanding of the importance of emotion even in the face of so much logic.

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