Goodreads: The Second Mrs. Giaconda
Chosen as an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci, young Salai cares only about ways to make easy money to support his father and sister. Then Salai meets the Duchess Beatrice, a woman ignored for her plain features, but who has a beauty that shines from the inside. Their friendship will help inspire the painting of one of da Vinci’s greatest masterpieces.
E. L. Konigsburg begins her book by proposing to explain the origins of the Mona Lisa–that is, she wants to explore why Leonardo da Vinci would deign to paint the portrait of a woman considered unimportant in society. The story that follows, however, focuses very little on the Mona Lisa. In fact, the book ends just as the inspiration for that painting appears. Instead, the story follows the budding friendship of da Vinci’s apprentice Salai with the new bride of the Duke of Milan, Duchess Beatrice. It contains no coherent plot, but only fragmented episodes that suggest a desire to impart to readers the importance of inner beauty through the depiction of Beatrice’s sense of fun and discerning artistic tastes (despite her “plain” features).
With no clear story arc, the success of the book rests on how well readers respond to the relationships of the characters–primarily Salai and Beatrice’s friendship, but also Salai and da Vinci’s understanding. Unfortunately, however, I found these a bit flat and not wholly believable. Salai and Beatrice’s friendship seems based primarily on the boy’s youthful adoration of a beautiful and charming woman; Beatrice humors him because she is bored and feels unloved. Salai’s attempts at friendship, however, tend to take the form of “witticisms” that are more often mean than funny and that frequently target the duchess’s own family. Perhaps the duchess unofficially adopted the boy as her personal fool, but I still had difficulty believing that she would so willingly endorse the insulting tongue of an apprentice.
Meanwhile, I think Beatrice was somehow supposed to be the glue that binds Leonardo, Salai, and herself together in some sort of understanding circle of love and beauty–mostly because she loves culture, art, and music, and da Vinci responds to her discerning tastes. Clearly, however, Beatrice is replaceable to da Vinci, or perhaps only significant as a personification of beauty and not as a person. Her relationship to him remains largely professional and her lasting contribution to him is a warning to Salai that the boy must help his master continue to be wild and creative. That is, she ultimately becomes nothing more than a catalyst to help inspire Salai to help da Vinci find genius.
Salai tells readers that he and his master are close, and I suppose we must take his word for it, since we do not see how da Vinci interacts with many others. Even Salai, however, remains at a distance, watching his master struggle through insecurity and doubt, and sometimes anger and impatience, as he takes on various commissions. The final message seems to say that da Vinci was not really knowable to anyone because he was too removed–not just because of his genius, but because he was afraid of getting hurt. It is hard to understand, then, just how Salai’s carefree nature supposedly inspired the artist to be more daring in his own work. The final image of the book is merely that Salai discovers a woman reminiscent of Beatrice whom Leonardo should therefore paint, and I had to question whether Konigsburg was actually suggesting that Salai’s life’s great work was approving this commission. I expected him to do more than identify a Beatrice look-alike (and I expected the Mona Lisa to be more than a replacement for some other woman, too).
In the end, the story presents itself as not only disjointed and fuzzy about its trajectory, but also as unnecessarily preachy. Because the characters fail to illustrate the message the author wishes to impart, the authorial voice intrudes a lot (mostly through Salai) to talk about inner beauty and personality layers and making others recognize the hidden treasure inside. I felt as if the author both recognized the weaknesses of the work and wished to hide them, and as if she did not trust her audience to “get it”. I was hugely disappointed with this attempt by the author of The View from Saturday.