Review: The Scribe of Siena
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
2/5 stars (for the shear enjoyment of mentally transporting me to back to beautiful Siena)
The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer (2017)
This book was a lot of fun for me, having lived in Siena, Italy, in the heart of Tuscany, for 6 months in 2008-9. I'd recommend it to anyone who has visited Siena, but if you haven't, you can probably give it a pass.
The story starts out in modern-day New York and Siena. A neurosurgeon living in NYC, Beatrice, travels to Siena to take care of her recently deceased brother's affairs. The brother, Ben, was a historian who purchased a home in Siena after stumbling upon some sort of medieval conspiracy to decimate the city. After he dies, Beatrice picks up where he left off, hoping to unravel the mystery and publish the book Ben had hoped to.
Imagine my surprise (and excitement!) when I found that not only was the house in the same neighborhood, or "contrada", as where I had lived - the Contrada Priora della Civetta, or the neighborhood of the owl - but on the exact same street where I lived, on Via Cecco Angiolieri. Now, Siena is small enough that no matter where this fictional house was located I probably would have recognized the general neighborhood, if not the street name, but it's also large enough that it's quite a fun coincidence for it to be exactly where I lived (especially considering there are 17 contrade to choose from).
In Siena, Beatrice discovers first an ancient journal of a fourteenth-century artist named Gabriele Accorsi, and then, when she visits a nearby museum to see his work, a painting of her very own face, mystifyingly painted in the 1340s.
I was all-in up until the point where the journal acts as a portal to magically transport her back in time to the year 1347. I had no idea this was a book about time travel, so I guess it just kind of threw me.
Beatrice is now trying to unravel the mystery her brother uncovered in the 21st century from true source materials and people. She meets the artist, Accorsi, and, in a coincidence a little too neat & tidy for me to swallow, finds that he lives with his family in the exact same house her brother will purchase more than 600 years later. She is also trying to find a way to travel back home before getting caught up in what she knows will come - the Black Death (bubonic plague), which will begin to ravage Europe in 1348.
What follows is a murder mystery, conspiracy drama, and love story spanning the centuries. I don't think the story or the writing are top notch, but I really did end up enjoying the book. The imagery of the Sienese buildings, streets, and piazzas were so beautiful, and made me appreciate how little has changed in the landscape of the city through the centuries. And the time travel piece reminded me of Octavia Butler's Kindred, though not as thoughtfully done. You could call this historical fiction (heavy on the fiction) with a bit of the fantasy genre (or the paranormal?) thrown in. Oh, because yeah, I forgot to mention that Beatrice can also enter people's minds & bodies to feel what they're feeling... though I never was really clear on how or why she had that power... or, honestly, why it even mattered.
(Photo above: The book with a framed print of Siena in my home)
UP NEXT: Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala