Wednesday, April 7, 2021

"The Dark Heart of Florence"

Tasha Alexander is the author of the New York Times bestselling Lady Emily mystery series. The daughter of two philosophy professors, she studied English Literature and Medieval History at the University of Notre Dame. She and her husband, novelist Andrew Grant, live on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming.

Alexander applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Dark Heart of Florence, the 15th Lady Emily mystery, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Chapter 11

In the time between my arrival home from the library and Cécile’s from wherever she’d gone with Signore Tazzera, I wrote letters to the boys and Margaret, read half a novel, and dressed for dinner. When Cécile did return—half an hour before we’d planned to dine—she was glowing. “Will you object if I don’t change my gown?” she asked. “I’m famished and would prefer to eat without delay.”

“I shan’t object so long as you tell me where you’ve been all afternoon,” I said. “Although my mother would be horrified and present this as yet another example of standards slipping to unacceptable lows. If we don’t dress for dinner, how will anyone recognize us as civilized?”

“Alors, there are times the uncivilized proves much more satisfying. And that, Kallista, is all you need know about my afternoon.”

“I take it you will see Signore Tazzera again?”

“I’ve invited him to dine with us tomorrow evening.”

I rang for Tessa, told her we were eager to eat whenever Cook was ready, and asked her to bring us a bottle of Cécile’s champagne as an aperitif.

“Non, Tessa, there was a case of prosecco delivered earlier today,” my friend said. “Bring us a bottle of that instead.”

Would that it were possible for me to adequately describe the shock I felt. Imagine London destroyed by vicious butterflies. Or the Parthenon of Athens felled by a child’s kite. I would have sworn either more
Page 69 in The Dark Heart of Florence is the beginning of Chapter 11. Does it give the reader a good idea of the book as a whole? Yes and no.

On the one hand, it gives us insight into two of the primary characters in the novel: Emily, the protagonist, and Cécile, one of her dearest friends. Their wit and their opinions concerning the joys of being uncivilized are illuminated when they banter about Emily’s mother and dressing for dinner. One the other hand, near the bottom of the page, Cécile tells a maid to bring her prosecco rather than champagne, a request that to anyone who knows her is unthinkable. Cécile only drinks champagne. Not tea, not coffee, not a nice Burgundy. Champagne, please and thank you. Emily is shocked, but we don’t get enough of her reaction to fully understand. Nor do we see what motivated her: the charming librarian who sent the prosecco.

But doesn’t a passage that raises questions make you want to read more? It certainly does for me, and this is a book that raises a considerable number of questions. So that’s another way the Page 69 test works—it gives the reader an appropriate and telling preview of what else is to come.

That said, because the book has two point-of-view characters, separated by more than four hundred years, one page can’t simultaneously give the reader a sense of both. Emily’s story takes place in 1903 and Mina’s in 1480, but Emily’s is the primary narrative. The test succeeds in giving our browsing reader a glimpse of what she’s like.

For me, one of the most important factors that influences whether I like a book is voice. If I’m seduced by it, it will carry me through even if there are significant flaws in the plot. Page 69 of The Dark Heart of Florence certainly gives the reader a taste of Emily’s voice, the dominant one in the novel.
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--Marshal Zeringue