The festival of San Giovanni is what brings them all together, but it is Chiara, disarming them with her apparent freakishness, who almost destroys them (as well as much of Florence, it seems). At the center of the story, though, is the relationship of Sofonisba and Matteo, whose tragic combustion of love and lust, according to Holdstock, forms the emotional basis for Sofonisba's great painting. By the end of A Rare and Curious Gift, we do finally feel that we understand both Sofonisba and Chiara. But it's Chiara who conjures up the most moving scene in the book when she impetuously frees Paolo's collection of caged animals, leaving (fittingly enough) just one behind.
The New York Times
The quest to possess beauty drives this debut historical novel, which borrows from the life of Artemisia Gentileschi, a gifted painter of the Italian Renaissance who was one of the first women to gain recognition as an artist in her own right. Holdstock's heroine is Sofonisba, daughter of the painter Orazio Fabroni. At 17, Sofonisba is taking on more and more of her father's work, attempting to cultivate her own talent. Her passions are aroused by the scruffy, swashbuckling sculptor Matteo Tassi, whose wandering and carefree ways suit her independent nature. When an exotic slave with freakish, piebald skin enters the lives of these artists, their fascination with the slave as an object of both beauty and repulsion sets off a spiraling chain of events that leads many to believe the girl is a curse upon the town. The book's exploration of passion, jealousy and ambition is underlaid by riveting, macabre descriptions of human dissections witnessed by its artist protagonists. Holdstock's vivid, unflinching tale doesn't sugarcoat the casual brutality of the period, and is punctuated by startling moments of beauty. (Feb.) Forecast: Holdstock's novel may suffer from following on the heels of Susan Vreeland's The Passion of Artemisia (2001). It holds its own, however, and should appeal to readers looking for a darker version of the female-centered historical fiction patented by Vreeland and Chevalier. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Plugged as an art historical novel in the style of Girl with a Pearl Earring, Holdstock's debut about the Italian Renaissance is more Bosch than Botticelli. The luscious Sofonisba has followed in her father's footsteps as an artist in the Medici's Florence. Her genius for painting is revealed in a flabbergasting episode when, at 15, she experiences an epiphany, grasps a brush for the first time, and paints like Michelangelo. Fiercely independent, she is yet susceptible to the charms of the earthy sculptor Matteo Tassi, who woos her with ribald remarks and brutish gestures. She is also partial to a dissection, as are seemingly all the characters-hardly a chapter passes without a loving description of a man, pregnant woman, or at least live pig being gloatingly disemboweled and flayed. The characters can't summon any more tender feelings for each other than bestial lust and vengeful ire, yet they never fail to be moved to sentimental tears by a cadaver or fetus. Holdstock's Florence is deliciously, unrelentingly, gross. Her characters leave off breaking wind and puking only when it's time for them to perish with repulsive symptoms. Even the festa can't come off without the feeble pauper who plays God the Father being accidentally burned alive, with heavy winks from the author lest we miss the symbolism. The plot is at once complex and aimless, moving in a squiggle. A lucky vest of hanged man's skin and an unlucky girl slave with curious pinto coloring are traded among the characters in countless permutations, a device of farce used here to conjure bathos. The tale precipitously ends after unruly rake Matteo rapes Sofonisba and is banished both from her affections and the city. She goes onto succeed in Rome as an artist and single mother. An incoherent treatment of a potentially fascinating theme. Strictly for those who want putrefying flesh on every page. Agent: Hilary McMahon/Westwood Creative Artists