I, Mona Lisa by Natasha Solomons

Many of us will, on a trip to Paris, have stood in the Louvre in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. We may also know some of the details of the painting’s history – its creation in Renaissance Italy, its theft from the Louvre in 1911. However, this new novel by Natasha Solomons adds a whole new dimension to the Mona Lisa story, taking us inside the mind of the painting itself and showing us the world through the eyes that look out from the portrait. Whether or not you enjoy this book will probably depend on whether you can accept that a painting is narrating the story. If you’re happy with that idea, then I think you’ll find I, Mona Lisa an interesting and entertaining read.

Most of the novel is set in 16th century Florence, during the period when Leonardo is working on his most famous masterpiece. From the painting’s own perspective, we get to know some real historical figures such as Lisa del Giocondo, the woman who sits for the portrait; Michelangelo and Raphael, da Vinci’s rivals; Niccolò Machiavelli, who approaches da Vinci with a scheme to divert the Arno River; and Salaì, a student in Leonardo’s workshop who is jealous of his master’s relationship with Mona Lisa. Although Mona is an inanimate object, she is portrayed in the novel as having the thoughts and feelings of a real woman, with an emotional attachment to her creator Leonardo.

When Leonardo eventually dies, leaving her vulnerable and unprotected, Mona embarks on the journey that will lead her to France. As the centuries go by, she spends time at the court of the Sun King in Fontainebleau and then at Versailles during the French Revolution, before finding her way to the Louvre where, as the 20th century dawns, she forms a new friendship with another great artist.

I, Mona Lisa is an unusual novel and a unique way of exploring some key moments in history. However, because so much time is spent in Renaissance Italy, the parts of the novel set in France feel more rushed and the characters less well developed. This was maybe the author’s intention, as Mona finds it difficult to bond with the people she meets after Leonardo’s death and makes it clear that her heart will always be in Florence, but it also meant that I felt less engaged with these sections of the book.

I do think that if you’re going to write a book about a painting with human emotions, the Mona Lisa is a perfect choice as it’s such a realistic and iconic portrait. The Mona of the novel is obviously very limited in what she can see and experience (and with whom she can communicate – just Leonardo and a handful of other painters and paintings), but Natasha Solomons does a great job of bringing Mona and her world to life. This is the third of her books I’ve read – the others are The Novel in the Viola and House of Gold. Three very different books, but I would recommend any or all of them.

Thanks to Hutchinson Heinemann for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 4/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

House of Gold by Natasha Solomons

It’s been a long time since I read my first Natasha Solomons book, The Novel in the Viola. Although I enjoyed it, for some inexplicable reason I had never really thought about reading any of her other books until I spotted her new one, House of Gold, which was published in the UK last month. I think it was the simple, elegant cover that caught my attention, at a time when covers in general are becoming increasingly intricate and brightly coloured, but the story sounded appealing too…and it was. I loved it.

House of Gold tells the story of a fictional banking family, the Goldbaums, who are loosely based on the real-life Rothschilds. When we first meet the family in 1911, they are fabulously wealthy and hugely influential, with branches in five European capital cities. In a move intended to strengthen the ties between the Austrian and the British branches, a marriage has been arranged between Greta Goldbaum and her cousin Albert. This is nothing new – Greta has grown up with the knowledge that “the Goldbaum men were bankers, while the Goldbaum women married Goldbaum men and produced Goldbaum children”, but she has no desire to marry Albert and is sure they won’t be compatible. Of course, the wedding must go ahead anyway and Greta is forced to leave her parents’ home in Vienna to start a new life as a married woman in England.

The relationship between Greta and Albert is at the heart of the novel and I enjoyed watching them get to know each other, trying each in their own way to make their marriage work but not always succeeding. It’s not always easy, especially not for Greta, but even when things are at their worst she finds some fulfilment in transforming the gardens of Temple Court, the British Goldbaums’ estate in Hampshire, and as a result of taking on new responsibilities and developing new interests, she is able to grow as a person.

There is much more to the novel than this, though. Within a few short years of Greta’s marriage to Albert, the First World War begins, bringing with it new challenges, new difficulties but also new opportunities. With European governments desperate for money to fund their war efforts, the services of the Goldbaums are as much in demand as ever, but as a Jewish family they find that their position is no longer as secure as it has been in the past. For Greta, there is the additional problem of being stuck in the middle, with different branches of her family on opposite sides of the conflict.

Natasha Solomons takes us right to the centre of the action, with characters such as Greta’s beloved brother Otto and her French cousin Henri becoming directly caught up in the war that is tearing Europe apart. We also learn a lot about the role of money in war; to quote Otto, “Money has no passport and every passport…it has little respect for borders. Money, like water, finds a way.”

There’s so much going on in this novel…so many characters to meet and so many interesting stories to follow. Maybe that’s why, after being completely gripped by the lives and adventures of the Goldbaums, I was slightly disappointed by the unexpectedly abrupt ending and by subplots which seemed to lack a proper resolution. I hope that means Natasha Solomons might be planning a sequel. It would certainly be possible, but if not I will just have to go back and read her earlier novels. I have Mr Rosenblum’s List, The Gallery of Vanished Husbands and The Song Collector to choose from.

The Novel in the Viola by Natasha Solomons

I love reading fiction set during World War II and The Novel in the Viola is one of the best I’ve read for a while. The story begins in 1938 when we meet nineteen-year-old Elise Landau, a girl from a rich Austrian family (her mother, Anna, is a successful opera singer and her father, Julian, a famous author). Until now, Elise has lead a secure and comfortable life but that’s all about to change because the Landaus are Jews, and with Europe on the brink of war Austria is no longer a safe place to live. And so Elise is sent away from her home in Vienna and travels alone to Tyneford House, a mansion on the south coast of England, where she will work as a maid for Mr Rivers and his son, Kit. Her parents have remained in Austria while they await American visas and they promise to send for Elise as soon as possible – but as the war continues, she begins to wonder if they’ll ever be reunited.

The portrayal of life in an English country house forms a big part of the story, with insights into the class system, social conventions of the time, and the relationships between servant and master. Elise has to get used to working as a parlour maid after spending most of her life having servants of her own. Her background makes it difficult for her to fit in with the other servants at Tyneford but her status as a maid and a Jewish refugee prevents her from being accepted by some of the Rivers’ upper class friends. Elise is a wonderful character and I enjoyed following her as she settled into her new life – I thought Natasha Solomons displayed a real understanding of what it was like to be newly arrived in an unfamiliar country, feeling homesick and struggling with the language and the culture.

There are lots of beautiful, atmospheric descriptions of the Dorset countryside and coast which gave me a true feel of what it was like to live there during the Second World War. The story also looks at the effects the war had on the village of Tyneford and the house itself. The author’s note at the end of the book was very interesting and explained how Tyneford was based on a real place that became a ghost town because of the war.

There are so many other things I could say about this book – there’s the secret of the ‘novel in the viola’ itself, and I haven’t even mentioned yet the romantic storyline which develops as Elise begins to fall in love with someone she meets at Tyneford. But I don’t want to spoil this book for you, so I’ll just say that The Novel in the Viola was a real pleasure to read, a great story with just the right balance of sadness and humour. And I thought the way the book ended was perfect – the only problem was that I had grown to care for Elise and the others so much I didn’t want to leave them behind.