The Courtesan’s Lover
Francesca Felizzi, former mistress of the Duke of Ferrara, is now an aspiring courtesan. Astonishingly beautiful and ambitious, she revels in the power she wields over men.
But when she is visited by an inexperienced young man, it becomes horribly clear to Fracesca that despite her many admiring patrons, she has never truly been loved. Suddenly, her glittering and sumptuous life becomes a gaudy facade.
And then another unexpected encounter brings with it devastating implications that plunge Francesca and her two young daughters into the sort of danger she has dreaded ever since she began to work the streets all those years ago.
The Courtesan’s Lover is a spin-off from Kimm’s debut novel His Last Duchess, taking and developing the story of one of its more minor characters. I haven’t read this first book, but found that this wasn’t a problem at all, as this works as a stand alone story perfectly well.
I am going to have to make a confession to you before I go any further: I was quite determined to dislike this book and probably went into it with quite a snobby attitude. This started from the book cover, which to be honest I thought was a little, well, tacky. It then also seemed like it was going to be all “ooh isn’t high class prostitution cool, lol.” Anyone who knows even a little bit about me would probably hazard a guess at me finding that somewhat grating. BUT, in fact I found this novel really subverted my expectations, and in spite of it not being my usual ‘thing’ I found myself really getting into the story. That’ll learn me.
The story is about Francesca Felizzi, a beautiful and renowned courtesan living in Naples in the sixteenth century. I had a bit of a Tess of the D’Urbervilles whinge to myself about how beautiful heroines in difficult situations have to be for it to be felt we should sympathise with them. However, beauty is sort of Francesca’s stock in trade and she’d be unlikely to be successful as a courtesan otherwise so I should really let that slide. We begin the novel seeing her interactions with some of her patrons (this is racy rather than graphic) and she doesn’t really seem all that unhappy with her lot. But then an encounter with a new young patron, and a string of somewhat coincidental new acquaintances causes this to swiftly unravel.
Although Francesca does not come across as particularly vulnerable working as a courtesan, as soon as she falls in love everything seems to spin out of control as she questions her life up to that point and trys to put it behind her. The story culminates with a few shocking twists and turns that feel like they occur and are resolved very quickly, but that isn’t necessarily a criticism, as it certainly kept me turning the pages. Francesca finds out that it’s not as easy to just put your past behind you as you would like, and that puts her and her children in considerable danger.
The period detail, especially with Francesca’s opulent lifestyle feels nicely described, and Kimm’s writing is pretty good. It did annoy me a little bit that Francesca’s point of view chapters were told in first-person present, while other characters were not, but this isn’t bad, it’s just not my personal preference. I do find history stories being narrated in the present tense feels a little anachronistic. You have to be as good as Hilary Mantel to pull it off, and while Kimm is certainly not a bad writer, this is no Wolf Hall. Oh, and while we’re here: Authors, PLEASE. When you are writing a story set in a country that speaks another language, do you feel the need to every now and then put the odd word here and there in that language? I am assuming they are speaking Italian all the time because they are in ITALY, but you as the author have kindly written it in Not-Italian, because otherwise I wouldn’t get very far with it. It is really not necessary to put the odd word here or there in actual Italian, I have grasped the point this isn’t taking place just up the road from me in Milton Keynes thanks. This isn’t a particular criticism of Kimm, as I see it all the time, but it did irritate me nonetheless.
I found it interesting reading the author’s notes that she did some research into the stress and trauma suffered by modern prostitutes alongside her historical research. This for me adds a whole new slant on her story. Without seeking to judge Francesca or her lifestyle, Kimm does not shy away from the complexity of how being a courtesan could have been glamorour and liberating, yet also dangerous and demoralising. With this in mind manages to balance an account of an independent woman whilst also acknowledging the darker side of her career and her desire to put it all behind her for a fresh start.
I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this, and it certainly isn’t my usual cup of tea. However, I would now even go so far as to recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction after a bit of a light read.
Thank you to Little Brown for sending me this book to read and review!