marginalia || Cecilia, by Linda Ferri; translated by Ann Goldstein

I. Reasons why I wanted to like Linda Ferri’s Cecilia [translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein]:

  1. I liked The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Following that line of thought: I want all my Europa Editions reads to be awesome. [Does it make sense that liking one book from a publisher would lead to liking all the rest in that publisher’s catalog? In my head, Aye.]
  2. Because they are pretty books, plus they’re incredibly rare here in my country — this is only the third title I’ve seen in 3 giant bookstores. [I had to buy it, okay?]
  3. And since I’ve bought it, because I had to because it’s so rare, it’s more expensive than usual. [Which does not bode well for the possibility that I not like it, since I’ll end up with a pretty book that’s basically a dud.]
  4. I wanted to like Cecilia because it was imperative that I like it. [That’s basically it.]

II. Beyond the justifications of a financial transaction, what other factors could’ve affected my reception of this book?

  1. It’s not my usual fare. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel set in Imperial Rome. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to.
  2. I don’t know who St. Cecilia is. I actually only knew this was St. Cecilia when I got home and, uh, read the jacket copy. [And so I Googled her. And I liked what I found.]
  3. I read these reviews: Nina Sankovitch of Huffington Post called it, simply, “compelling“; The New Yorker described Cecilia’s voice as “simultaneously irritating and appealing,” — both deem the work as a fictional exploration of a proto-feminist. And pretended that Nicole didn’t write “it seems we know less of Cecilia than at the beginning” in hers. [I’d already bought the book when I read her review, augh.

III. Reasons why I ended up not liking Cecilia — actually, lackluster-ly reading it through — you saw that one coming, didn’t ya? :

[1] Is it not telling enough that I had to enumerate the rather dubious circumstances surrounding the reading experience?

[2] Aherm. There was this noticeable distance between the story and I. Told in a series of diary entries [or, her sheafs of papyrus] that details the life of Cecilia’s life from 15 onwards, with your flashbacks here and there — details of family life, the heartaches of a young girl, the heartbreaks of other people. The problem was, [and I say this in retrospect], was Cecilia’s voice. Cecilia as she presented herself — as Ferri presented her — simply wasn’t a person I was interested in. Precocious, yes. Irritating, yes. A little too idyllic, yes. And that reticent, wilting flower feel to the voice, totally at odds to that “proto-feminist” thrust? Yes.

[3] It was a conscious decision of the author’s to not write this novel the way we know St. Cecilia. And this is how we know Cecilia. Now. I appreciate the author making the story her own, but it ultimately didn’t work for me because I found it poorly executed — that voice is my main complaint. Whether or not you diverge from the original material, in my book, what matters more is how you do it. Call me an old fogey, but imagination is well and good but the art of it, the crafting is absolutely vital. Fail there, and the book just pales in comparison. As it did in this book.

[4] Furthermore: This Cecilia was definitely more low-key. Such a contrast to the spectacular-ness of the Saint-mythos. And, well, attacking this subject matter with a decidedly low-key angle demands more from the author. I mean, it’s not so much that Ferri had to work overtime for the subtlety — subtlety is not the issue here. It just demands more because it’s so different. And I felt that Ferri just didn’t — maybe couldn’t — step it up and buh-ring it.

[5] I needed to skim, I tell you. I was just so bored.


Writing this now, I’m thinking that maybe this book just isn’t for me. The whole Christianity bit, sorry. The Imperial Rome-ness of it all. That “proto-feminist” angle. So, who wants to trade Europas? For seriously, people.

13 thoughts on “marginalia || Cecilia, by Linda Ferri; translated by Ann Goldstein

  1. The moral of the story is don’t bother reading a book that is described by anyone as “simultaneously irritating and appealing”.
    What does this mean anyway? If the book is appealing or the voice of the protagonist is appealing then it’s appealing. Irritating is a whole different kettle of fish (not that I’ve ever seen fish in a kettle, but you get my meaning) (where does that saying come from, anyway?).
    Anyway, jokes asked, sorry to hear that you were robbed of a good read and your good money. I read Mem Fox’s little book called Tough Boris to the little people in my house this evening and it was the highlight of my reading week. What a lovely book. (I won’t spoil it, but the illustrations are divine – picture Boris, a mean, tough, massive, scruffy pirate. Imagine the open seas, the treasure, the ship and then Boris’ little parrot.).

    1. I think because the character was, well, annoying in her precociousness, and that snooty-naive-stubborn thing she had going on, and at the same time it made her cook? Ack, I don’t know. Bottom line, I really should have taken a long time deciding in the bookstore before I took this home with me. Bad, Sasha, baaad.

      Oh, gruff adorable pirates! I’m taking note of Tough Boris, Justine, thank you!

  2. I always want to like Europa Editions a lot myself, because I think the design is great, but I’m pretty sure I’ve only read two and wasn’t thrilled with either of them. Which also just surprised me.

    Sorry that you didn’t take to it, but I do understand all your complaints!

  3. I just bought Elegance of the Hedgehog. Will read it soon.

    Interesting that there’s a novel about St. Cecilia. I grew up in a school that revered her as one of its saints (we even have a music hall named after her!)

    1. I think you’ll love The Elegance of the Hedgehog — I mean, that’s precociousness to enjoy. I really did, I mean.

      Funny, but St. Cecilia has never been in my radar — Me and my ignorance of Saints and most aspects of Catholic religion, hee. I don’t know, but maybe this book could work for someone who knows Cecilia already? But this is stiill a very cautious and timid recommendation, mind you.

  4. The cover is gorgeous.

    Still, your 5. There’s no worse sin in a book than being boring.

    I doubt being set in Imperial Rome would have bothered you if the rest worked. It may not be your general territory, but with another book it could have been you’d have finished thinking “wow, why don’t I read more books set in Rome?”

    How intrusive is the Christianity? Presumably the Christianity of her time was quite different to the main forms around today?

    1. True, Max, I’ve never actually dwelled on that [annoyance prevailed] — If the author had made it work, I’d be eager to read more fiction on Imperial Rome. It could have opened up new worlds for me. Now, I’m just as blah as ever about it. Phoo.

      Oh, early “strains” of Christianity, as it was being introduced to Rome. There were interesting details of how the community was at a crossroads: There are their gods, there’s a sample of the population who still chose to worship the Egyptian gods, and then there’s this conversion.

      Re how Christianity worked in that dynamic: wasn’t so intrusive as it was, well, uninteresting.

  5. @Claire, Nicole, and Iris:
    I hate it when I get lured by the ooh-shiny appeal of a gorgeous cover, only to find the actual content wanting. Yes, the Europas I’ve seen have stellar designs, but I think, as with all books, I have to temper my enthusiasm for that. Why, oh why, did I pick up Cecilia again? [No, the enumerations haven’t helped me with the regret, haha.]


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