Last night I finished one of the most moving books I’ve read in a long time, The Sonnet Lover by Carol Goodman. The reviews compare her to Donna Tartt but personally I think she’s far better. Maybe it’s the romantic in me, maybe the poetry lover, maybe the literary critic, maybe the mystery addict, maybe I was just drugged by the descriptions of the heady Italian summer drenched with the smell of roses and lemon trees. But it’s just so goddamn gorgeous.
The descriptions are beautiful and poignant, the characters tortured, the tale gripping. Worthy of Shakespeare himself, except for the happy ending – although it is marred by death in usual Shakespearean style.
Everyone knows the story of Shakespeare’s Dark Lady, the unknown woman whom he hated and loved so much he wrote 28 sonnets dedicated to her beauty. The Sonnet Lover follows the journey of a literary professor as she travels to Italy to try and find the Dark Lady. The 400-year-old story of Ginevra de Laura, an Italian poetess, is interweaved with that of Professor Rose Asher, who found love and lost it in Italy 20 years ago. Now she revisits the manor where Ginevra and herself both met tragedy. The tale is kept from untenable soppiness by the murder of a student and the modern battle for ownership of the manor. Struggling with her own past, Rose digs deep into Ginevra’s and follows a literal trail of blood to discover the 63 sonnets Ginevra had hidden in the manor. The poems may or may not prove that Shakespeare visited Italy and Ginevra was his Dark Lady.
Ginevra is in fact a fictional character, created by Goodman through research of several accomplished Italian renaissance poets. Her sonnets were written by Goodman’s husband, author of Pythagoras in Love. They do respond to Shakespeare’s Dark Lady series, however, and many scholars have suggested the lady was Italian.
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 131
|Thou art as tyrannous, so as thou art,
|As those whose beauties proudly make them cruel;
|For well thou know’st to my dear doting heart
|Thou art the fairest and most precious jewel.
|Yet in good faith some say that thee behold,
|Thy face hath not the power to make love groan;
|To say they err, I dare not be so bold,
|Although I swear it to my self alone.
|And to be sure that is not false I swear,
|A thousand groans but thinking on thy face,
|One on another’s neck do witness bear
|Thy black is fairest in my judgment’s place.
|In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,
|And thence this slander as I think proceeds.
I love a book that can twist the past and the present so effortlessly, especially one that is based on historic fact so that the ‘fiction’ cannot be disproved. You can tell by reading the descriptions of the Italian countryside, of the historic records in convents, of Shakespearean poetry and renaissance life, that Goodman really did her research here. It gives the story credibility and makes it even more gripping. And the tragic tale of Ginevra’s life, which matches to historic record of how renaissance women of her class were treated, gives reason for Shakespeare’s despair, and simultaneous love and hatred of her. Finally, the “black hair of wires” and “breasts of dun” lines make sense. (See Sonnet 130)
One more confession. The only other time I have ever cried during a book was Dewey the Library Cat, and possibly Wuthering Heights. And this… yes. There may have been some tears.