“The Secret Book of Dona Grazia”

The Secret Book of Dona Grazia
by Jacqueline Park
Simon & Schuster, $25

The eponymous hero of this detailed, absorbing Italian Renaissance novel fights her grandmother to learn Jewish texts alongside her brother (and is beaten for it), enters the Casa de Conversos and almost renounces Judaism for Christianity, becomes the model for a Mantegna painting, gives birth in the Venice ghetto, witnesses Savonarola’s burning in Florence and the sack of Rome by the new Protestant anti-papists, survives attacks by anti-Jewish bigots and brigands and has a lifelong passionate love bond with a blue-eyed Catholic nobleman.

And yet this book is no soap opera, nor merely a catalogue of historical events. It’s an impressive reconstruction of a life, suggested to the author’s imagination by her discovery of two actual letters—one from an educated young Italian Jewish woman who becomes Grazia in the novel; the other from the Italian Catholic noblewoman who presses her to convert, and later to become her personal secretary.

Around these letters Park weaves a tale that’s personal, political and historical. This is a first novel from Park, founding chair of NYU’s Dramatic Writing Program, and its numerous dust-jacket blurbs stress the book’s historical accuracy. But more than that—Park gives us in Grazia a woman whose genuinely dramatic life is not melodramatic but utterly engaging: her family of banchieri (like Jews in almost all of Europe, the fictional dei Rossis, and the real-life Finzis who appear here, were forbidden to enter most trades other than “usury”), her best friend who dies in childbirth, her descriptions of Mantova, Bologna, Venice, her opinions on humanism, on Dante, on Maimonides all come to us here in Grazia’s own words, since the “Secret Book” of the title is the epistolary memoir she writes to her son.

Read this book! It is a passport to Renaissance Italy with a Jewish feminist guide.