It’s 1559. A young woman painter is given the honor of traveling to Michelangelo’s Roman workshop to learn from the Maestro himself. Only men are allowed to draw the naked figure, so she can merely observe from afar the lush works of art that Michelangelo sculpts and paints from life. Sheltered and yet gifted with extraordinary talent, she yearns to capture all that life and beauty in her own art. But after a scandal involving one of Michelangelo’s students, she flees Rome and fears she has doomed herself and her family.
The Creation of Eve is a riveting novel based on the true but little- known story of Sofonisba Anguissola, the first renowned female artist of the Renaissance. After Sofi’s flight from Rome, her family eagerly accepts an invitation from fearsome King Felipe II of Spain for her to become lady-in-waiting and painting instructor to his young bride. The Spanish court is a nest of intrigue and gossip, where a whiff of impropriety can bring ruin. Hopelessly bound by the rules and restrictions of her position, Sofi yearns only to paint. And yet the young Queen needs Sofi’s help in other matters- inexperiences as she is, the Queen not only fails to catch the King’s eye, but she fails to give him an heir, both of which are crimes that could result in her banishment. Sofi guides her in how best to win the heart of the King, but the Queen is too young, and too romantic, to be satisfied. Soon, Sofi becomes embroiled in a love triangle involving the Queen, the King, and the King’s illegitimate half brother, Don Juan. And if the crime of displeasing the King is banishment, the crime of cuckolding him must surely be death.
Combining art, drama, and history from the Golden Age of Spain, The Creation of Eve is an expansive, original, and additively entertaining novel that asks the question: Can you ever truly know another person’s heart?
An avid history and historical fiction reader, I usually can tell within the first two pages if I'm going to like a book. This one quickly caught my attention and I was consumed by Cullen's tale, reading it through the first time, in one day. She maintains the right balance between being historically factual and rich vivid detail, immersing her readers in the sumptuous but rigid Spanish royal court, where even interactions between family members are constrained.
Previously, I've focused primarily on British history, especially the era around King Henry VIII. So both his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, as well as their lives and reigns, are very familiar to me. This is the first time I've encountered Mary's consort Philip, in Spanish Felipe, in any other setting. It was really exciting to get a different perspective about him and see him as a powerful older king and this time the pursuer of his spouse's affection instead of the focus of Mary's intense and unrequited love.
Elizabeth of Valois, daughter of the infamous Catherine de' Medici, was unknown to me other than through most basic of facts. Cullen brings her to life as she reveals the dangers a young royal bride encounters, the difficulties encountered in political marriages between strangers, and conveys how dangerous the tiniest of missteps could be. Making for intriguing reading as one realizes just how different social morays were and how potentially deadly they could be.
The marriage of Philip and Elizabeth unfolds before the eyes of the artist Sofi, a very real historical figure and a breath of freshness as a narrator for me, as I'd never heard of her or her story before. While Sofi is realized as a full and detailed character, the story leaves me wanting to know more. I'd be interested if Cullen decides to to pick up where she left off and tell us about Sofi's later life and subsequent marriages.
Overall, I'm glad to have found a new author, who's storytelling excites me. I'll be looking forward to future titles and will be checking out her historical titles for children and young adults, which I anticipate will be great ways to interest younger readers in historical fiction.About the Author:
Lynn Cullen is the author of the young adult novel I Am Rembrandt’s Daughter, a 2007 Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and an ALA Best Book of 2008. Her previous award-winning novels and picture books for children include the critically acclaimed Moi & Marie Antoinette, The Backyard Ghost, and The Mightiest Heart, for which she was named 1999 Georgia Author of the Year. An avid traveler and self-taught historian, she grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. This is her first novel for adults.