This book has been on my reading list for ages and finally I got around to reading it. The Girl with the Painted Face is a historical story set in Italy and the different theme of following an acting troupe intrigued me.
We follow primarily the story of Sofia who from the outset is in trouble and running away from it. She meets a troupe of travelling actors, joins them and later in the story trouble arises again. Sofia for me is a vulnerable young woman who has had an unfortunate life from childhood. Underneath she is stronger than we think especially when she doesn’t submit to the men trying to sleep with her as they see her as pretty and easy, when she tries to survive penniless with nowhere to go and when she is determined to learn to act when she joins the troupe. But for all of this, I couldn’t really warm to her. She seemed lovely and I didn’t want to see her in trouble etc. but I didn’t really think she was a strong central character.
For me what made the story was the acting troupe. The troupe is made of different personalities and I really enjoyed following them, their relationship with each-other and how they work so hard to put their shows on. Gabrielle really captured the historical Commedia dell’arte in Italy. These are comedies put on by travelling actor troupes with stock characters and we all know the characters and the masks worn e.g. Harlequin. Overall I didn’t know much about Commedia dell’arte before I read this book and learnt a lot. I was really interested that I Googled it to find out more and for me that makes a good historical book. However I think Gabrielle did put in too much description of how they put the stage up etc. and I found this bits lacking in excitement and slow.
As well as being a historical novel, it is a murder mystery. Rich Sebastiano who is creepy, abuses his power and not a nice guy is murdered later in the novel. Due to various events Sofia is accused of murder and put in prison. Whilst we get the back story for Sebastiano and 3 other people are set up as potential suspects, I felt that this element of the story was second place to the acting troupe and the developing relationship between Sofia and Beppe. We get to know the other suspects a little bit and Sebastiano, but after his murder we see what happens to each briefly and no more is said. They are all unhappy people but I do think this event and the characters could all have been all weaved together better to create an even more exciting story. It is as if the author needed to have an event to drive forward the tale of the troupe, Sofia and Beppe more. In the end we find out who the murderer is but again it was second place to the acting troupe and their story and I think could have been better written.
Opium also features in this story and whilst new to Italy in the era this story is set, the devastating results of this addictive drug are highlighted. Again it is part of the buildup to the suspects for the murder and in the background of the story. But I felt it should have been more in the forefront especially as Angelo from the troupe was an addict and no-one really noticed why he kept disappearing etc.
This is a good story and Gabrielle’s writing style is very fluid and easy to read. She has weaved historical detail into the story perfectly and having the acting troupe as the central characters works. But it is disappointing that even though Sofia is the central character, she takes second place to the troupe and the murder is like a secondary thought as with other detail. There is some romance and passion but again it wasn’t as heartfelt as it should have been.
This definitely should be a story of mystery, survival in a difficult era, love and talent but whilst all aspects are touched upon it is lacking. Gabrielle could have written a much stronger, exciting story bringing all the elements together and really painting a picture of life in Italy in that era.
If you like historical stories and want to read something different such as about acting troupes in Italy then I would recommend this book as the historical content on this is brilliant. But if you want passion, mystery and intrigue leave this book and try one of the better historical fictions out there. e.g. Philippa Gregory’s books.