Sofonisba’s remarkably lifelike portraits demonstrate her excellent eye for detail and her understanding of her subjects. Her fictional voice follows suit. Spanning a nine-year period, from 1559 to 1568, Cullen’s novel opens just after Michelangelo has discovered Sofonisba, at twenty-seven, in flagrante with one of her fellow pupils, the maestro’s assistant. (This is an imagined incident.) Filled with guilt about her unanticipated indiscretion and worried about her reputation, she swiftly accepts the King of Spain's invitation to tutor his young queen, Elisabeth of Valois, in the art of drawing and painting and to serve as one of her ladies.
Cullen’s nuanced portrayal of the complicated royal marriage is the novel’s highlight. As Catherine de Medici’s daughter, Felipe’s teenage bride knows the duty she must fulfill, yet she's full of youthful frivolousness, and she knows nothing about how to win a man’s heart. The standoffish Felipe, either protective of her immaturity or consumed by his passion for his mistress – Elisabeth can’t tell which – leaves her to herself until she welcomes his attention. While the King’s feeble son from his first marriage, Don Carlos, develops an obsessive puppy love for Elisabeth, she becomes fascinated by her husband’s illegitimate half-brother, the adventurous Don Juan, whose youth and handsome form prove a harsh mirror for the much older king. Their mutual attraction doesn’t go unnoticed.
Sofi becomes friend and confidante to the young woman she calls My Lady, accompanying her as the court makes the rounds of the royal pleasure palaces and lending a willing ear to her troubles. The King, however, remains enigmatic. Is he a devoted husband or a cold-hearted man who’ll do anything to secure an heir? No one can know the inner workings of another couple’s marriage, and in this case, Elisabeth doesn’t even know this herself. The Queen’s difficult position as a beautiful bird in a gilded cage earns Sofi’s sympathy and casts a new light on her own romantic dilemma.
This fictional Sofonisba is a keen observer, but for an independent woman who blazed a trail for other female artists, her personality is surprisingly self-effacing. The story sweeps along nicely with lavish descriptions of court intrigue, jests, games, dances, and discussions between members of the royal family, sometimes with no first-person commentary for pages on end. Subplots involving her companion/maid and former lover shed light on her character, but as Sofi the lady-in-waiting comes to the forefront, her creative ambitions seem to fade in importance. Most of the painting she does accomplish takes place offstage.
Sofonisba Anguissola was an extraordinary painter who electrified the 16th-century art world. As such, I relished the scenes where her genius was allowed to flourish on the page. I also appreciated being introduced to a different set of Renaissance royals and the social concerns of the day, from the Inquisition’s growing influence to New World foods and medicines. A welcome addition to the ranks of royal fiction, The Creation of Eve is a novel I eagerly picked up each evening; the writing was more than capable, and the Queen’s plight made for gripping reading. Still, I wish Sofonisba could have played a larger role in her own story.
The Creation of Eve was published in March by Putnam at $25.95; thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy for review.