March 14, 2010

The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen

It's 1559. A young woman painter is given the honor of traveling to Michelangelo's Roman workshop to learn from the Maestro himself. Only men are allowed to draw the naked figure, so she can merely observe from afar the lush works of art that Michelangelo sculpts and paints from life. Sheltered and yet gifted with extraordinary talent, she yearns to capture all that life and beauty in her own art. But after a scandal involving one of Michelangelo's students, she flees Rome and fears she has doomed herself and her family.

After Sofi's flight from Rome, her family eagerly accepts an invitation from fearsome King Felipe II of Spain for her to become lady-in-waiting and painting instructor to his young bride. The Spanish court is a nest of intrigue and gossip, where a whiff of impropriety can bring ruin. Hopelessly bound by the rules and restrictions of her position, Sofi yearns only to paint. And yet the young Queen needs Sofi's help in other matters- inexperiences as she is, the Queen not only fails to catch the King's eye, but she fails to give him an heir, both of which are crimes that could result in her banishment. Sofi guides her in how best to win the heart of the King, but the Queen is too young, and too romantic, to be satisfied. Soon, Sofi becomes embroiled in a love triangle involving the Queen, the King, and the King's illegitimate half brother, Don Juan. And if the crime of displeasing the King is banishment, the crime of cuckolding him must surely be death.

Combining art, drama, and history from the Golden Age of Spain, "The Creation of Eve" is an expansive, original, and addictively entertaining novel that asks the question: Can you ever truly know another person's heart?

When visiting Michelangelo's workshop in Rome, Sofi becomes tempted into an indiscretion with the young man she has longed for for some time, Tiberio. With no resulting offer of marriage Sofi accepts the position of lady-in-waiting to the very young, newly crowned Queen of Spain, Elisabeth, and in doing so subjugates her love and talent for painting. The story follows Sofi through the trials of the Queen's new marriage to King Felipe II and the jealousies and rivalries that arise between the King's son Don Carlos, his brother Don Juan, nephew Don Allesandro and the King for the attentions of the Queen.  The King is fiercely jealous and has total command over the lives of those in the royal household. Sofi becomes favourite of the Queen and through her naive errors and inherent timidity creates more difficulties for herself, and at times, the increasing discontented Queen Elisabeth.

What I loved about this book was the original story about a little-known, unique person in history, Sofonisba Anguissola, a female painter during the Renaissance. The novel is very intimate from the first, presented in journal format, so we are reading about the events as they happened through Sofi's eyes.  The novel is divided into Notebooks and journal entries, and before each journal entry Sofi writes Items...little notes about painting, herbs, history, culture, court life...whatever Sofi deems important.

Sofi is very naive and I chuckled at every time she was driven to say "Sweetest Holy Mary" when confronted with temptation or surprising events.  Sofi is used to living within a constrained lifestyle and the story is more about her attempts to have increased understanding of the world and venturing beyond the restrictions imposed on her...sometimes with disastrous consequences. The story is bittersweet as Sofi both indulges and repels her yearnings to paint, experience life and discover love.

At times some of the scenes were repetitive...the King comes across the Queen acting seemingly indiscreet one too many times.  Some of the story seems to lagged in places, but the premise is creative and very well researched.  This is quality historical fiction that I recommend if you like original characters, court intrigue and a focus on artistic talent.

Disclosure: LibraryThing EarlyReviewers ARC from Publisher
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 390
Publisher: Putnam
Release: Hardcover March 23, 2010

My Rating: 4.0


Further Recommendations:
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier


  1. This sounds really interesting - I love art/art history reads, so I'm definitely interested in this one! Thanks for the review.

    Also love the list of recommendations at the bottom - have you tried The Passion of Artemisia?

  2. Nope. Looks angsty but well regarded! I love historical fiction that has a heavy artistic element. Thanks so much for the kind of book.

  3. I hope you enjoy it! A friend of mine had me borrow it while I was studying in Florence - and I haven't been able to shake the art history fiction fever since!

  4. I have an award you

  5. Thank you Bunnitaz! I have left a comment on the post.