Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Blind Contessa's New Machine


Reading The Blind Contessa's New Machine began as a purely I-love-the-cover choice. Isn't that a lovely cover? I'm a bit of a sucker for floral patterns. They might not make me purchase a book but they will always make me pick one up to look at. As usual judging a book by it's cover worked out fine, my friend. So much for what your Mother tells you.

There is the kernel of a true story in Contessa. A kind of prehistoric typewriter was created in Italy in the early 1800's for a blind woman to use as a means of communication. From that slim start author Carey Wallace has written an enchanting love story.

The Contessa is Carolina Fantoni. The town beauty, Carolina has been indulged by her parents all her life. Like almost all historical fiction heroines she has grown up to be intelligent and independent. It is fitting that she will marry the prize of the town, Pietro. As her wedding approaches Carolina realizes that she is going blind. Her parents, her fiance, none of them think that it could possibly be true. It's love, it's a momentary anomaly, it's anything but what it really is. The only person who believes her is her is childhood friend Turri. Before the end of her first year as a wife Carolina is blind.

The best parts of this novel concern Carolina's blindness. Her initial panic and bewilderment. Then her acceptance and efforts to live a productive and fulfilled life. It's fascinating. This is where the author's research and writing skills really pay off. You can understand what a tragedy this is and you know that if it weren't for Carolina's rank her life would have ended with her sight.

In an effort to stay in touch with Carolina, Turri invents the typewriter. With this 'communication machine' she will be able to write letters. She will be able to have a small private space in her life. Turri's eccentric spirit and support are the solace of Carolina's life and soon they are lovers. Of course in any time love triangles and infidelity are dangerous but in historical novels especially they can be deadly.

Wallace has written a surprising fairy tale with it's own humor, darkness and sensuality. Her characters are plausible and charismatic. The Blind Contessa's New Machine can at times be a little married to it's own charm but overall Wallce should be praised for bringing such a light touch to the usual grim detail of historical fiction.

Another marvelous thing about Contessa is that it reminded me of one of my favorite novels ever The Silent Duchess by Dacia Maraini. A gorgeously written novel about an 18th century Duchess who has been blind and mute (for mysterious reasons) since childhood. Duchess is one of the novels that made me fall in love with historical fiction. The writing is superb and account of life at that time is outstanding.


As a note to future historical fiction authors: how about a heroine that is semi-accurate to her time instead of ahead of it? How about a woman who is not a genius or independent. I thought that The Blind Contessa's New Machine was great and I truly do love The Silent Duchess. I'm so glad that I read them and I want everyone I know to do the same. But. There are moments when I'm reading other historical fiction novels when I feel like I could play Heroine Shuffle. I could switch any 19th century female main character with her 16th century novel counterpart and never see any difference except in dress.

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