Let me first say that there is much to love here. Truly! The first fifty or so pages felt interminable, but once past that point the book becomes a veritable page turner.
Eliot crafts a fascinating, first-rate historical fiction plot based in Florence, Italy, from the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici (in 1492), through the time of Savonarola’s influence, and culminating in an epilogue placed in 1509. In the midst of this tumultuous social situation is placed our heroine, Romola. The daughter of a scholar, Romola herself is very well educated for a woman of her time. This novel follows Romola through six complex post-de’Medici years of Florentine politics, further inflamed by the preachings of Savonarola, a Dominican friar. As the plot swells in complexity, the gentle woman transitions from being her father’s daughter, to her husband’s wife, to a woman meeting life head on with a dignity of her own merit. Possessed of a fast moving, labyrinthine plot, this novel, despite its length of just over 600 pages, keeps up a taut pace until the very end.
As might be expected in a novel named after a character, this one, despite the enticing plot, is very rooted in its performers. Romola is a central figure, but by no means the only one. Eliot pulls some of her players direct from the history books and some from her imagination, but each and every one of them feels so genuine that it is difficult to know which really lived and breathed and which only ever lived within her pages. This is the type of book that has you googling purely imaginative personages-because they are portrayed with such authenticity.
Florence of the late fifteenth century is very well depicted: the pageantry of her holidays (including a fantastic description of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities); the dress, habits, and occupations of her various classes; and the architectural details of her stone edifices. As you wander the streets with the novel’s inhabitants you are drawn into her neighborhoods, with their chaos, aromas, and idiosyncrasies.
So why a relatively low three star rating? Because the prose is so dense that it left me wallowing somewhere between philosophy text and nineteenth century history tome. For some reason, I had to work exceptionally hard to remain focused on reading the words themselves and concentrate with that little bit of extra grey matter to wrap my mind around what exactly was being expressed. Was it worth it? Well, yes, as my clear admiration for the book’s merits shows; however, I can not say that I “really liked” (four stars) or “loved” (five stars) a book which required so much effort. So, three stars, a simple “liked” verdict, it is for this work. This is definitely not a book for someone unused to literature of the Victorian era, as, in my opinion, this novel is some of the least accessible writing from that time frame.