Monday, July 26, 2010

Another Way to Heaven by David Bye

Set in Italy during the High Renaissance, the story opens with Isabella di Francavilla, Marchesa of Termoli, who is condemned to live out her days in a convent cell where she must confess her sins by order of a Papal Inquisition. And so begins her journal and the story of her life.

The unattractive Isabella is forced to marry a handsome young man named Alphonso, the handsome and dashing son of a wealthy Marchese. It is a political marriage arranged to unite their two powerful families. Although Isabella has loved Alphonso from childhood, her love is unrequited. Alphonso finds her unattractive and barely tolerates her. He regularly abandons her for years at a time to engage in war and womanizing.

Isabella yearns for a child, and their families wait impatiently for an heir, but she remains barren. Alone and pining for the husband she loves, Isabella befriends a woman named Tullia who acts as her governess for a short time. Unbeknownst to Isabella, Tullia is a former runaway wife turned prostitute and fortune teller. Yet she imparts to Isabella her love of Dante and Petrarch and her dream of a better life for women; one without the restrictions and loss of freedom. Through Tullia, Isabella learns of the idyllic world of Sappho's Lesbos. When Tullia moves away, she continues to correspond with Isabella. Her letters ignite a longing for freedom and love within Isabella, enhancing her unhappiness.

Isabella tries to be a dutiful wife, but all her attempts to produce a child come to nothing. Soon, she learns of her husband's numerous affairs and betrayals. Slowly, they drift apart and begin to lead separate lives.

Alfonso is a valiant warrior known for his military prowess, surviving numerous battles including the ones at Ravenna and Marignano. He is therefore promoted in rank and gains respect and entry into the opulent courts of Ferrara and Mantua, where he is able to indulge himself into more intricate sexual affairs.

After years of absence, weary of waiting for Alphonso, Isabella secretly departs to spend some time with Tullia who is an independent woman running a fortune-telling salon and a girls' school in Milan. From Tullia, Isabella learns the art of the Tarot. Their affection or each other soon turns physical, and shortly thereafter, becomes bitter and Isabella returns home. But it is not a joyful homecoming. Alphonso is eager to repudiate her so he can marry his mistress whom he has impregnated, but Isabella refuses. Alphonso forewarns he will get his way. Soon, members of the Inquisition arrive to question Isabella about her involvement with Tullia, claiming knowledge of her sins. Isabella finds herself trapped with no alternative but to enter a convent.

This is a magnificent, epic story of a noblewoman's life during the height of the Italian Renaissance. Beautiful prose, colourful descriptions, and plenty of historical detail breathe life into this poignant story of one woman's search for love and acceptance. Author David Bye spent a great deal of time in Italy. He gained his inspiration from this story after visiting the Island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples where there exists a rocky islet with the remnants of an ancient castle, a cathedral, a crypt and a convent remain to this day.

The main character of Isabella is portrayed through deep introspection and first person narrative, which gives the story power and impact. The point of view of Alphonso is related through third person narrative and helps maintain continuity while allowing the reader insight into his perspective. Clearly, the author has done years of research and has a strong understanding of this historical period including its art, literature, and political turmoils.

As an avid reader of Italian historical fiction, this novels stands with the best. I enjoyed reading every page and has all the qualities needed to catapult it into fame – passion, tragedy, and forbidden love. This is a terrific book filled with enduring characters, outstanding prose, breathtaking descriptions, and an intriguingly poignant plot. A true pleasure in every way.


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