And Then I Read: THE SECOND MRS. GIOCONDA by E. L. Konigsburg

Konigsburg is an author of novels for young readers that are equally suited for older ones. Her work is always surprising, her subjects quite varied, and her approach is unusual and refreshing. This book is historical fiction of a sort, but also about many other things. The title character was the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, The Mona Lisa, but she only comes into the story at the very end. The book is about Leonardo’s life and relationships with patrons as seen through the eyes of a street urchin, Salai, who the painter takes in as an apprentice. Salai is a thief and a charming smooth talker, and it’s clear Leonardo does not value him for his artistic abilities, which are modest, but for his company, his insights, and his companionship. They both become friends of Beatrice, the wife of the Duke of Milan, where Leonardo has his studio, and one of his major patrons. Beatrice is wise, and insightful, but not a great beauty, and her marriage is political rather than based on love. Over time she wins the affection and love of her husband with a little help from Salai and Leonardo, but then is swept away into politics so they see little of her. Much of the book details the many interests and projects of da Vinci, and how he decides where to spend his time and energy. Salai is sometimes a scoundrel, but just as often helpful to his master, and their relationship is complex and well described, making the meat of the story. How the Mona Lisa came to be is a quiet theme in the background, one that only jumps forward at the very conclusion, and I was surprised that the story ended without more about the actual painting, but in retrospect, it’s a fine book as it is, and highly recommended.

The Second Mrs Gioconda by E L Konigsburg

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