First things first: I wonder if we're supposed to take this book as a question - like how DO you be both? or a lesson - you know, here...this is how you be both. A case can be made for either, as that's how all the best art goes - but I will say, Smith certainly knows how to be both. And by that I mean...she so completely and fiercely inhabited both her main characters, Francesco and George, with such a seamless ease that it made the hundreds-years long gap in time between the two crazily inconsequential. That's part of the beauty of the book, actually, how Smith was able to basically write two separate stories but with the most poetic, intangible connecting threads weaving a magical bond between the characters and centuries.
I don't want to divulge too much of the plot here because I expect every one of you (four readers) to read this novel. It's the most clever, thoughtful, delightful, poignant, surprising and inventive book I've read in years and absolutely my favorite book of 2015 so far (and maybe of the last 5 years)(more?)(it's so good). A basic premise: Francesco del Cossa is a Italian Renaissance painter with incredible talent and not a ton of luck. He was part of a commission to paint frescoes at the Palazzo Schifanoia for Cosmo Tura but left before his work was complete because Cosmo refused to give him the merit-based raise Francesco felt he deserved. (To be clear: some of this is historically true. Francesco was a real painter and really did help paint the Schifanoia frescoes. The rest comes from Smith's brain. Isn't historical fiction with an art-slant the best?).
George is a teenager who has only recently lost her mom and is left to manage a grieving, boozy dad and precocious younger brother. George is forever in her head, playing back moments with her mother that leave her either shamefully guilt-ridden, deeply sad or momentarily hopeful. She's obsessed with correct grammar and has only one friend she can talk to. It's not easy living for either of Smith's characters but their sharp wit, incredible insight and depth of strength make them a joy to know, however briefly.
The book is divided into two sections, with each character getting one - though who goes first is up to chance. Half the books were printed with Francesco's story being told first while the other half meet George first (cool, right?). This book is definitely character-driven; not too much happens to each character in the time we get to know them. While each deals with their own set of conflicts, it's more how they work through those conflicts internally than the issues themselves. More than that, the book is about the subtle joys and pains of life and the wisdom that comes from working though it all. The way Francesco and George interact with each other is such a treat to read - Smith's imagination has to got be a fun place to be. Her way with words is infuriatingly beautiful and incredibly moving.
My favorite passage also happens to be the cover image for some of the printings. It's a photograph of 1960s French pop stars Sylvie Vartan and Francoise Hardy walking down the street. It's a photograph George found among her mother's belongings and is described by Francesco thusly:
"a picture of 2 beautiful girls seen walking along like friends do : one has gold hair, one has dark but the dark of her hair is sunlit to lightness - both of the heads of the girls are : they are walking along a street with awnings : it's a warm place : their clothes are mosaic gold and azurite : the girls are in conversational commerce and look as if between sentences : the goldener one is preoccupied : the darker-haired girl turns her head toward her in a most natural gesture in open air and so she can see the other better: her looking has about it a politeness, humility, respect, a kind of gentle intent."
Francesco has such obvious reverence for and delight in looking at and appreciating art. I mean, have you ever in your life read a more poignant description of friendship/a simple photograph? It just sings. I mean, doesn't everyone want to be looked at with "a kind of gentle intent"? It's so simple, it socks you right in the gut with its truth.
I can't say enough good things about this book, really. A gem.