Though a member of the oldest profession, initiated in the back streets of distant Ferrara, Francesca Felizzi is no common puttana. Now in Napoli, she is a high-class courtesan leading an extravagant life in her own opulent establishment where she entertains patrons of her choice. Not to appreciate this difference is like confusing a board member of Goldman Sachs with the owner of a dingy pawnbrokers round the corner.
Gabrielle Kimm has researched her subject with diligence. Although we share Francesca’s life – and inevitably her bed on occasion – these scenes are handled with the sensuous delicacy befitting a narrator who prides herself on the ingenuity and subtlety of her art.
Comparing her prowess with that of her cook, Francesca muses: …Lorenzo uses only his legions of herbs, spices and fragrant oils, but we are both true virtuosi and I know we take equal pride in observing the pleasing effects of our skills.
She is the same Francesca who was the Duke of Ferrara’s long-suffering mistress in Gabrielle Kimm’s successful debut, His Last Duchess, but this second novel is not a sequel. It picks up Francesca’s life a few years after her departure from Ferrara to establish an independent life with her young twin daughters. The girls, Beata, and Isabella, are a constant source of innocent joy in this story – making little wax dolls, rushing around the house with miniature feather dusters, and adoring their Mama.
In a society that offers women few options, Francesca has worked hard to achieve her status and wealth. She owns two well equipped and staffed houses – one her place of ‘business’, the other a home for herself and her girls. She has a lot to lose. The gloss of her lifestyle does not blind her to the realities of her situation:
“The life of a courtesan is one of glitter and glamour and exhilarating excitement – but that’s like a … like a sparkling crust over a swamp. Under the crust it’s different. It’s dark and dirty and dangerous. It’s like an endless rush towards the inevitable wreck of your life, in a runaway cart, unable to stop however clearly you see the dangers around you.”
These murky undercurrents, deepened by seemingly innocuous events that have grim consequences, provide tension throughout the novel, yet it is essentially a story about astutely drawn characters and the intrigue of their interlocking relationships.
Modesto, Francesca’s manservant, mentor, general factotum and friend, plays a prominent role in The Courtesan’s Lover, but he has demons of his own to suppress. Modesto is one of the castrati, boys emasculated in sixteenth century Italy in their thousands in order to retain their young soprano voices. Now in his thirties, Modesto’s voice no longer provides a livelihood, but the long shadow of his childhood trauma still torments him.
The novel opens with Modesto helping Francesca dress in a sumptuous red and gold brocade gown for her first visit to a new patron – Miguel Vasquez, an arrogant, wealthy sybarite, Maestre de Campo in the occupying Spanish Army. She has two other regular patrons: Michele di Cicciano, whose lust at times pushes at the boundaries of acceptability, and the over-worked clerk, Filippo de Laviano, seeking release from his frustrations with a frigid wife.
Striking minor characters enrich the tale and linger in the mind. There is Father Ippolito, for example, the priest who sits in the stuffy confines of the confessional box, sweating through the graphic details of Francesca’s disclosures.
She affects her clients in different ways; in turn their disparate actions have huge impact on her life. There is a reason these liaisons are closeted, secret. Her clients have other lives as sons, husbands, brothers, and friends: to step outside the bounds of the boudoir is to be ensnared in unaccustomed relationships with unknown repercussions.
When a series of chance encounters – trivial in isolation – conspire to draw Francesca out of her familiar environment, giving her a glimpse of an alternative, unattainable existence, I was reminded of that ancient string game, Cat’s Cradle. Like Francesca’s occupation, it is a game for two. The first player winds string around their wrists and fingers, pulling their hands apart to tighten the strands into a pattern. The second player grips the taut strings in two places and, taking possession of the whole contrivance, extends the strings to a different arrangement. Once Francesca risks everything to grasp the impossible possibility of a new vision – genuine love – too many hands come into play, manipulating and tightening the cords until she is hopelessly trapped in the ensuing tangle. She cannot go back; she is terrified to go forward.
I am like a hermit crab, pulled from the safety of its armour: soft and naked and vulnerable without its stolen carapace.
As Francesca struggles with this emotional crisis other forces she has unwittingly provoked turn to avenge themselves on her children.
The Courtesan’s Lover has an engaging structure. Each significant character (including those reluctantly omitted here to avoid spoiling the story), has chapters written from his or her point of view in the ‘third person’. But Francesca narrates her story in the ‘first person’, present tense. This can be a challenging device for a writer, and for a reader, but in Gabrielle Kimm’s skilful hands it draws us effortlessly into Francesca’s inner thoughts as we wriggle into her tight bodices, dribble the juicy peaches she is so fond of, romp with her clients, and feel her emotional turmoil when her world begins to disintegrate.
Gabrielle Kimm’s writing glows with vivid and original imagery. Dialogue is ‘overheard’ rather than read. For all the tension and realism of a life balanced “over a swamp” this is ultimately a story of forgiveness and redemption. Those who enjoyed His Last Duchess will delight even more in The Courtesan’s Lover.
The Courtesan’s Lover (2011), ISBN 978-0-7515-4455-8, is published by Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group. You can learn more about Gabrielle Kimm and her books by visiting her period website at: www.gabriellekimm.co.uk