The Ornatrix (Book Review)

The World Literature Today April book was called The Ornatrix by Kate Howard. At its core, this is a novel about beauty and the pursuit of beauty. It takes place in 16th century Italy and follows the life of Flavia, a dyer’s daughter who was born with a bird shaped mark on her face. Her mother held the belief that beauty was goodness and goodness was beauty. Heaven was, above all things, beautiful, so Flavia’s mark was a curse from the devil in her mother’s eyes. As a result, Flavia was hidden from the world and scorned by her family. In a jealous rage, she sabotages her sister’s wedding and is sent to a convent as a punishment. Ultimately, she gets wrapped up in the world of Renaissance beauty, where the pursuit of perfection in the form of cerussa (white face paint made from lead) has some very disturbing consequences.

I had trouble getting into the book at first, in part because I couldn’t tell if it was historical fiction or not as there were some fantastical elements and very little world-building. At the book club meeting, it was pointed out that the book was written in present tense, which is unusual for historical fiction. I think that explains the few fantastical elements; for example, when Flavia says she was cursed with the bird mark because her mother looked at an ugly baby bird while pregnant, that is what Flavia and the people around her believe, but it is not necessarily an accurate reflection of what happens when pregnant women look at ugly things, which is nothing. The lack of world-building comes down to the fact that Flavia leads a very isolated life and the book is mostly told through her perspective, so you learn more about the smell of sheep’s piss in a vat of dye than about the Renaissance. The scope does broaden a little bit as the book goes on due to Flavia’s search for both beauty and belonging as well as the inclusion of a second narrator. The other narrator is Gilia, a little girl who, despite being beautiful and the daughter of an aristocrat, is just as isolated as Flavia, if not more.

The author, Kate Howard

The whole book is fairly gritty, as it realistically depicts the gross realities of life in the 16th century and the almost grotesque nature of some of their beauty practices. It gets pretty dark at the end and there are a few disturbing scenes that are tough to forget. I’ve read, and enjoyed, darker literature before, but this book in particular has really stuck with me after reading it, which is surprising since I had a difficult time enjoying it. I couldn’t put on make-up for a while after reading it without thinking about the book. I’ve been more contemplative about the role that beauty and my perception of my own appearance plays in my life.  Finally, I would like to note that this isn’t necessarily a book against beauty, as even the complete rejection of beauty has some disastrous consequences within the narrative.

I have really enjoyed being a part of the World Literature Today book club, and I would encourage any readers who are in the Norman area to join. In the future, I might like to see more books by foreign authors writing about their own experiences. Overall though, my experience with the World Literature Today book club has been exceedingly positive, and I look forward to another great semester of reading with them.


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