Buy Alchemy’s Daughter
Special price $15.68 Regular price: $16.95
Publisher: Lake Street Press
Reviewer: Melissa on July 30, 2015
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Santina Pietra is 17 and the daughter of a merchant in San Gimignano, Italy, which means that she’s expected to marry someone of her station. However, Santina only has eyes for Calandrino, a brilliant young scholar who is preoccupied with ancient alchemical texts and her tutor. When Santina meets Trotula, the village midwife, who many believe is a strega, or witch, she is challenged to forget this young man and become the woman she is meant to be. Some of the villagers believe that Santina is a victim of the midwife’s spell of enchantment, but despite what they think, she’s determined to become a gifted midwife, just like Trotula, even when calamity strikes. Alchemy’s Daughter, the second book by Mary A. Osborne, is set in a different time and world, but contemporary readers – even those who are typically skeptical about books set in the middle ages – will find that the strong-willed heroine mirrors their own search for themselves and meaning in their lives.
One of the first books I reviewed for YABookShelf.com was Osborne’s debut novel, Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, which is set in the lush, artistic world of the Renaissance. As someone who took as many art classes as possible in high school and wished my undergrad schedule permitted me the opportunity to take some studio classes in addition to the classes I took that, in part, discussed art history, Osborne’s debut künstlerroman and Emilia’s story was one I had to read. Since then, I’ve been waiting to read the prequel, Alchemy’s Daughter, which tells the story of Emilia’s grandmother and the knowledge that Santina passed down to the women in her family through an alchemical text, settling, finally, with Emilia in the earlier book.
Normally, I shy away from medieval settings and literature, in part because one of my professors made books I wanted to read, like Beowulf and the mythology of King Arthur, extremely dull. Alchemy’s Daughter doesn’t have the fast pace of many YA novels published today, but there is something so intriguing about a world in which midwives use scientific methods, and when necessary for the health of mother and child, caesarean section to deliver a healthy baby, but are persecuted for their methods because of superstition and the backward medicine of the day. This novel is full of dramatic moments that made me keep turning the pages. Moreover, just like Nonna’s Book of Mysteries, this story is about a woman loving a man who she is forbidden from seeing, but sticking by her convictions – even if it means being forced to leave the protection of her father’s home and striking out on her own in uncertain times. It is also about at time of great upheaval and change in Europe because it depicts the beginning of Bubonic Plague, which swept through Europe killing men, women, and children in large numbers. Through it all, Santina demonstrates the strength of character and sense of individuality with which contemporary readers will identify.
In addition, it’s a story about a young woman who is seeking knowledge of the alchemist’s path and the Elixir of Life. Initially, the book details how Santina’s curiosity about alchemy comes to light through overhearing her father and Caladrino attempting the typical experiments one associates with alchemy, such as “using salts and metals, trying to make gold” in the attic. However, over the course of the novel, the alchemical process becomes a metaphor for becoming who Santina is meant to be: a midwife and healer. Moreover, it’s about realizing that what you don’t know yet is just as important as what you do know because experimenting on something or someone without the correct understanding and technique can have devastating effects. While readers may not have any interest in becoming a midwife themselves, readers will find, upon close reading of this book, that the alchemist’s path can be used, metaphorically, for any type of knowledge in which they’re seeking to become an expert.
Finally, this award-winning novel speaks to the experience of loss and grief in a way that will resonate with both teen and adult readers, even ones like myself, who typically shy away from this historical period. It reminds us that we can wallow in the darkness of despair when we lose the one we love or when someone we know dies, but when we’re able to find a way to move forward authentically, there will be something beautiful around the corner, even if it is only our own, personal growth.
For these reasons and many more than I can delineate in this review, Alchemy’s Daughter is one that will continue to resonate with me for a long time coming just like the earlier book in the Alchemy Series.
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