The Or­na­trix

Kate Howard

Foreword Reviews - - Reviews Adult Fiction - MEAGAN LOGSDON

The Over­look Press Hard­cover $27.95 (304pp) 978-1-4683-1382-6

Mor­bidly en­gross­ing, the novel probes the lengths women go to in or­der to be seen as beau­ti­ful.

Kate Howard’s The Or­na­trix is a daz­zling ex­plo­ration of the mean­ing and con­veyance of fem­i­nine beauty.

Flavia lives with the blem­ish of a bird-shaped birth­mark across her face. Un­der the weight of her mother’s judg­ment, she is forced to hide away from most of the world, only al­lowed out­side if she dons a hat with a veil to cover her

bla­tant im­per­fec­tion. When she ru­ins her sis­ter’s wed­ding dress out of spite, Flavia is ban­ished by her fam­ily to the con­vent of Saint Guil­iana.

There, she meets Ghostanza, a strik­ing Vene­tian and a wid­owed cour­te­san who takes Flavia as her or­na­trix, her per­sonal hand­maid. She also in­tro­duces Flavia to cerussa, a white lead makeup that can erase her birth­mark. Thus Flavia is drawn into the dark world of ob­ses­sive van­ity, where she must come to terms with her­self or risk drown­ing in vice.

Beauty and ug­li­ness are con­trasted through­out the novel, in­ter­spersed with his­tor­i­cal recipes for draw­ing out fe­male love­li­ness that, though they may be strange and laugh­able in moder­nity, il­lus­trate the lengths that women have gone to to at­tain phys­i­cal ap­peal. Caught up in such rit­u­al­is­tic masks, Flavia must con­front the phys­i­cal and emo­tional dan­gers of sharp con­cern with out­ward ap­pear­ances.

In pur­suit of the ul­ti­mate stan­dard of beauty, char­ac­ters of­ten be­come twisted. Once-in­no­cent Flavia un­cov­ers a wil­i­ness in her­self through the in­flu­ence of Il Si­co­fante, the apothe­cary. Sweet Gilia, Ghostanza’s step-daugh­ter, is also not all she is on the sur­face, and though Flavia’s mother is far too poor to in­dulge in the cov­eted cerussa, she im­poses her own harsh cer­e­monies to re­move Flavia’s em­bar­rass­ing mark. Only Vi­tale, a kindly doc­tor, seems to es­cape be­ing bent, serv­ing as a pos­si­ble av­enue of sal­va­tion.

At times mor­bidly en­gross­ing, The Or­na­trix is a pow­er­ful tes­ta­ment to both the won­ders and pit­falls of fem­i­nine iden­tity when en­twined with ever-shift­ing per­cep­tions of beauty.

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