Author: Laurel Corona
Genre: Fiction (Historical / 15th Century / Spain / Judaism / Coming-of-Age / Court Life / Family / Historical Figures Fictionalized)
Publisher/Publication Date: Sourcebooks Landmark (3/4/2014)
Did I finish?: Yes.
One-sentence summary: A young 15th century conversa recounts her life in Spain and Portugal and her search for her spiritual and emotional home.
Reading Challenges: E-book, Historical Fiction, NetGalley & Edelweiss
Do I like the cover?: I adore it -- so bright, eye-catching, and evocative.
First line: I hold my hands up for my mother's inspection.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow.
Why did I get this book?: Corona's novels always get rave reviews and I love the setting and era.
Review: This rich novel, set in 15th century Spain and Portugal, follows the life of Amalia Cresques, a conversa who eventually returns to her Jewish faith at great personal expense.
Born to a famous mapmaker, Abraham Cresques, who eventually went deaf, Amalia's gift for languages allows her to accompany him to court where she assists him with his work. But after his passing, she finds herself a wife in an unhappy marriage and in constant search for the home and community that will allow her to worship openly as a Jew.
I hesitate to describe this as an 'inspirational' novel but it is a rather faith/spirituality heavy book, which I struggled with at times. Despite the title, the story has very little to do with mapmaking; it's really about Amalia's life and her passion for her Jewish faith. There's non-stop action, from the erratic behavior of the various monarchs to the rough hatred for the Jews by Christians and the Inquisition, punctuated by moments of domestic drama or bliss.
I have some complicated feelings toward this book. One critique is that it felt a little too long and exposition-heavy; I found myself skimming pages at times, especially at the end when Amalia's family grows so huge it's hard to tell everyone apart. She lives in an incredibly violent, tumultuous era, so there's non-stop action, and that was occasionally tiresome.
Personally, I was frustrated with Amalia for her choices; her devotion to her faith really cost her in terms of happiness and love, and I found her story ultimately quite depressing, although I don't think that was the author's intention. Still, I enjoyed her voice and found her to be well-written and evocative.
This edition includes a 26-question discussion guide and some book club activities; I was surprised to learn that Amalia's father and her acquaintances were all historical figures, and that the heartbreaking incident at the very end was real. (Apologies for being vague, but I don't want to spoil anyone!)
For those who like great heroines, sagas of family, and coming-of-age stories, this is your novel. It's a wonderful arm chair escape, too, as Corona evokes 15th century Iberia in vivid detail.